In the ’80s, a group of scientists and artists wanted to know if they could recreate Earth’s ecosystem, so they built Biosphere 2 (Earth was known as Biosphere 1) in Oracle, Ariz.
The experiment was not only scientific, but a social one where eight scientists locked themselves in the Biosphere from 1991 to 1993. There would be no supplies and no physical contact with the outside world.
On September 26,1991, Mark Van Thillo, Sally Silverstone, Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, Taber McCallum, Roy Walford, Abigail Alling, and Jane Poynter, collectively known as “the synergists” were locked in the biosphere, a 3.15-acre home, a self-sustaining mini-world.
The media and scientists deemed the experiment a huge failure as rumors of food being sent to the “enclosed ecosystem” and lack of oxygen started to circulate.
Almost 30 years later, documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf’s new film, “Spaceship Earth” tells a captivating and uncannily timely story in this era of quarantine and social distancing. He revisits the Synergists, their archives, their ideas and the people who made their ambitions come to fruition.
“Spaceship Earth” is available to stream through Hulu, Alamo on Demand and in virtual cinemas.
Where did this film begin for you?
I was researching on the internet and came across this bright red image of eight people in bright red jumpsuits. They were in front of this pyramid. It took a second to realize it was real and not a science-fiction movie still.
When I realized these people were around, I was determined to tell their story and then I realized it was a much bigger story than I had initially understood. It didn’t take me long to realize there was this fascinating pre-history of the Biosphere 2 and its genesis was this counter-commune. They were an unusual group that strayed from your conventional group about what hippies were. They were artists and capitalists. They had traveled the world. I was fascinated to learn more about them so I went to their commune in Synergia Ranch. When I arrived, I was taken into this temperature-controlled room that had all this 16mm film and analog tapes and images.
How did you earn their trust?
They had been burnt by the media and the reputation of their work has been forgotten. There was sensitivity among the group about the portrayal of their story. It was important to assure them that this was a different kind of project. Our intentions were not salacious, and we weren’t interested in using their huge body of material to reiterate the flattened depiction of the group that has persisted over the years.
I went deep into understanding everything that had been said and written and went to them with an interpretation of telling it in a new way. I felt enough time had passed with hindsight and there was an incredible relevance that could be reappraised today.
What were some of the conflicts that came up?
The Biospherians all have their own perspective about the project, and they have ongoing careers working in ecological restoration, sustainable food education, academic science, and even space enterprises. There isn’t consensus amongst that group about a definitive story on Biosphere 2, and how it relates to the work they do today. Whenever I make a film, I accept that there is no definitive version of the story. All of the Biospherians would tell a different one.
They were quarantining in a way, and here we are in a world where we are in our home biospheres. What is it like having a film come out at this time?
It took me a second to realize this was even the case because social distancing and quarantine was only going to be for a short time. It soon became a long-term situation. It only snapped into focus for me when Neon (who distributed the film) called me and said they weren’t going to do a theatrical release and that we all needed to think differently because this film was about what was going on right now. I wasn’t disappointed about that. I just thought it would give people perspective about what was going on. It’s uncanny.
What lessons can we learn from being in isolation and from the Biospherians?
The Biospherians talk about their isolation experience as personally transformative. They came out with a renewed sense of responsibility to the outside world because they were responsible for harvesting the food they needed to eat. They couldn’t take anything for granted, not even one breath.
I know this will change how I feel. I’ll never take going out to dinner with friends for granted, and I think the Biosphereians became more attuned to the impact they have on the world and how they might live in it. We can’t take our biosphere for granted. We can’t pillage its natural resources and ignore the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Those lessons are explicit. In a capitalistic system, we’re told bigger is better, but I think the less obvious lesson of Biosphere 2 is that bigger isn’t always better.