2020, R, 115 mins.
A documentary directed by Matt Wolfe
The Biosphere 2 project was an awe inspiringly ambitious - if not equal parts crazy - scientific undertaking, and is the subject of Matt Wolfe's sometimes unwieldy, but thoroughly intoxicating documentary SPACESHIP EARTH.
For those that
weren't around at the time or have forgotten, the Biosphere 2 was the
world's first and largest internal ecosystem, built between 1987 and1991
in Oracle, Arizona. After
completion in 1991, a group of so-called "Biospherians" were
elected to enter the vast structure and seal themselves within in for two
years, living completely off of the internal atmosphere generated and the
food that they could cultivate and grown inside.
Their initial hopes were to study the effects on plant, animal,
and, yes, human life cut off from the world as we know it in hopes of
preparing for colonies on other planets.
What began with much hope and publicity ended up becoming a
distracting sideshow spectacle in media circles, and the project became
embroiled in controversy and multiple setbacks.
It should be
noted that Wolfe's doc is not entirely set within the two year mission
inside the closed off habitat, but instead spends much of its running time
exploring the back story and history of all of the power players involved.
The first half of SPACESHIP EARTH was a bit too wobbly for my
tastes, but once it got into the real substance of the trials and
tribulations of the project in question then it truly becomes an endlessly
compelling watch. And Biosphere 2 (somewhat awkwardly, but logically named,
seeing as the scientists involved labeled the planet outside of the
experiment as Biosphere 1), was legitimately incredible, at least in terms
on conception and aims. Not
only did the three-plus acre area contain multiple animal life both large
and small, but also a multitude of different environments, scientific
labs, living quarters, and tech to create its own breathable atmosphere
and internal power. And you have to maintain a level of mad respect for the
biospehrians themselves in shutting themselves off from everything and
everyone they knew and loved in the world for 24 months. Unfortunately, the experiment ran into some highly publicized
issues (which I'll get into in a bit), that caused many to question the
validity of the entire undertaking.
But, still, it
was indeed awesome in scale and scope.
How many other experiments of the time or since included indoor
rainforests, deserts, plains, and oceanic sections brimming with
everything from insects to birds to larger beasts, all cohabitating
together with humans? It was,
and some would aptly describe it, as a New Age Noah's Ark, but one that
came with a hefty price tag (funded by corporate interests, never a good
sign when it comes to purely scientific endeavors) and a huge level of
outside scrutiny. It's easy
to laugh at Biosphere 2 in hindsight, especially since in the last thirty
years we haven't even come remotely close to colonizing other planets.
But Wolfe finds a commendable middle ground approach of neither
mocking his subject matter or holding up the whole enterprise for
easily consumable hero worship. Utilizing
a tried and true doc approach of talking head interviews from the past and
present mixed with footage from the era in question, Wolfe tries as best
he can to relay the multiple perspectives behind his Herculean,
one-of-a-kind feat of scientific know-how.
He also tries to cover the behind-the-scenes machinations that
simultaneously helped and hindered the experiment while also covering the
increasing levels of media analysis of its viability.
Sometimes the focus here is spotty, but Wolfe manages to
homogenize a lot of material and personas with relative grace and tact.
Again, the least
intriguing areas of the film comes from its opening stages,
which whisks audiences back all the way to the counterculture age
of the mid-60s to introduce us to the key personnel that would eventually
make the Biosphere 2 a reality decades later.
Surprising to me, it began earnestly as a hippie movement project and
the brainchild of John Allen, who dreamed of exploring biospheres as a
natural progression outward from his theater group.
The players involved in his group also shared a mutual desire to
find ways to peacefully and productively cohabitant in new ways, which led
to communes being established to explore a sort of very low tech first run
approach to what would become a larger Biosphere project later.
That, and the team was heavily inspired by the great sci-fi film
SILENT RUNNING, which showed biospheres on vast spaceships millions of
miles from Earth. Wishing to
explore this far out idea to his fullest, Allen eventually sought out
necessary funding, which came in the form of billionaire Ed Bass.
All of this would lead to the building of Biosphere 2, the drafting
of Biospherians, and that door being locked behind them (well, it almost
didn't lock, as shown in one unintentionally funny piece of archival
footage on launch day).
It's at this
juncture when SPACESHIP EARTH really takes off (no pun intended), during
which time we're granted much in the way of intimate, never before seen
footage of the people inside and what would become an arduous daily grind
to keep their experiment afloat...and themselves alive.
The scientists, doctors, engineers, and so forth that occupied
Biosphere 2 took to the project with passionate enthusiasm (and perhaps,
as some critics would describe, hopeless naiveté), and it sure is easy to
understand the headspaces of those involved early on, who probably felt
like they were in hippie Valhalla inside of the massive structure.
The doc devotes a reasonable amount of time showcasing many of
these distinct minds that made up the Bionauts, like tradesman Mark Nelson
(that could fix just about anything) to conservationist Sally Silverstone
to Dr. Roy Lee Walford, a physician with some rather novel ideas and
theories about how having just the right diet and level of daily exercise
could allow people to live well past 120 (he later died 40 years shy of
his target). All in all,
these brave and determined men and women gave the project their all...but
then crushing reality began to settle in, which news broadcasts around the
country took great pleasure in covering for viewers.
There were, like,
really bad problems that began to come up at inopportune times.
Some of the scientist's ecological forecasts and models never bore
fruit, leaving to many of the species of animals and insects eventually dying
(of course, cockroaches didn't). Then
the atmosphere began to dwindle to near dangerous levels, which required
outside intervention and the necessity of oxygen being blown into the
facility. Then there was the hunger issue, with the biospherians
becoming unhealthily thin and lacking in proper daily nourishment, which,
in turn, would start to have disastrous impacts on their mental health and
professional relationships. In
one damning instance, one scientist had to leave Biosphere 2 for medical
treatment and then was thrown right back in.
Most of this caused predictable - and justifiable - levels of media
shit storms, not to mention that many scientific minds on the outside
began to deem to whole experiment as a catastrophic failure.
If people leave and go back into the "sealed" structure
and if basic necessities of air have to be circulated inside, then the
whole ideological framework of Biosphere 2 begins to easily implode.
Covering the project became sensationalistic "ecological
entertainment" and not science.
To be fair, it's kind of hard to argue against this line of
fairly democratic handling of the material, I still wished that Wolfe
wasn't so easy on some of his targets, like the cult-like figure of Allen
and how he obsessively tended to his flock, and I never fully gained a
sense of what Wolfe actually feels about this man (he's a real cipher). There's also the issue of a lack of racial makeup in the crew
themselves that's impossibly hard to ignore, although this doc kind of
does. And were the
Biospherians misguided in thinking they could fully and successfully
duplicate Earth ecosystems inside domed structures for two years without
any outside interference of aid? Were
they driven more by high minded idealism than actual scientific logic?
How tangible was their research on practical levels as well?
The Biosphere was only used twice for its intended purposes and
both attempts were beset with failures large and small.
The company behind everything dissolved in 1994 (probably because
it no longer meant large dollar signs in their future) and Biosphere 2 was
nearly destroyed for retail space. Thankfully,
the University of Arizona now uses it for research purposes. How sad
it would have been if another Wal-Mart was erected in its place.
It wasn't a total failure, though. Biosphere 2 still remains the most complex internalized series of Earth biological systems ever attempted, and has never been duplicated since. But, was it the most daring scientific plan since putting men on the moon or just nonsensical pseudo-science being run and overseen by counterculture elitists wanting to achieve their own levels of segregated peace and harmony? It's a fascinating query, to be sure. I personally would have preferred the entire film to be about the inside life of Biopshere 2 and to have most of the expository and slow moving opening sections to be slimmed down. If there's one nagging aspect about Biosphere 2 that Wolfe categorical gets right is that the intersection between capitalism and science can breed distracting complications in the pursuit of knowledge, and Biosphere 2 was no different. Perhaps the best way to describe the project would be as an honorable failure, and one that had an unreachable end game.
One last thing: This film is now being distributed to watch at home via VOD during out current pandemic while many of us are isolating ourselves from the outside world.
How ironic, eh?