A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2020


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 thinking. 

Despite his 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?

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