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Spaceship Earth uncovers the goodness hidden in the debacle of Biosphere 2

A media sensation gets a sensational breakdown

Photo: Philippe Plailly/Sundance Institute
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Polygon’s entertainment team was on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. With Spaceship Earth now out on VOD, we’re resurfacing this review.

Logline: Documentarian Matt Wolf (Teenage, Recorder) chronicles how the science-fiction dreams of an artistic collective begat the $200 million Biosphere 2 architecture project, and tracks where it all went wrong.

Longerline: In the ’60s, artist-engineer John Allen was an avant-garde thinker who attracted younger San Franciscans with his anecdotes about world travel and artistic ideology. His close-knit group of hippie pals formed a theater group before eventually hightailing it out of the city to establish Synergia Ranch, a New Mexico commune focused on ecology, architecture, and really, whatever people could dream up. That meant planting and harvesting crops to become fully self-sufficient, but also, with zero expertise, building a science vessel out of Chinese scrap metal and sailing around the world.

Synergia’s members hungered for knowledge and were always looking to one-up themselves, under the philosophy that life could be playful and meaningful if you were open to all possibilities. So in the late 1980s, Allen and his band of visionaries embarked on their most ambitious project ever: the construction of a biosphere that would sustain the lives of eight crew members for two years without any outside interference.

Most of Spaceship Earth focuses on what happened when Synergia teamed with billionaire oil maven Ed Bass to build Biosphere 2. To the pragmatic futurists, the research facility was a giant science-fair project, a towering work of concept art, and a haven for their of-the-soil lifestyle. If man was going to one day settle on the moon or Mars, this was the way to lay the stepping stones. But the scope of Biosphere 2 provoked the science community and wooed the media, putting Synergia’s process under the public microscope for the first time. The group was all about experimentation and learning — they had been since the theater days. But the world wanted results.

seven men and women in red suits in the Biosphere 2 in a still from the documentary Spaceship Earth Photo: Philippe Plailly/Sundance Institute/Hulu

The quote that sums it up: “John Allen was a brilliant, charismatic leader because he simply met emotional needs ... part of John Allen’s genius was helping people realize: it’s all theater.”

What’s it trying to do? In almost a true-crime-documentary mode, Wolf rips a stranger-than-fiction moment from historical headlines, then peels back the surface to get to the bottom of the debacle. Even Spaceship Earth’s opening, a salvo of talking-head interviews that introduce John through the mesmerized young women and men who followed his lead, has an air of cultiness that could be mistaken for the intro to Wild Wild County season 2. But the twist is that there’s nothing nefarious about Synergia: a few wayward souls discovered one another, finding faith in their shared ambition. The artists and the art are inspiring.

Unlike their circumnavigating junk boat, Biosphere 2 had problems. The structure was conceived to support plant, animal, and human life for two years, thanks to a recycling ecosystem, but the team eventually faced life-threatening levels of carbon dioxide and accusations that food was smuggled in through the sealed doors. Wolf probes the issues from the perspectives of those who survived it, juxtaposing the sensible breakdowns again the media reaction.

Does it get there? Talky documentaries often plod through explanation, but the grown-up theater kids of Synergia give the oral history a melodic rhythm. The lives of straight-edge wallflowers who spent their free time mounting geodomes in the middle of the desert look pretty damn fun compared to our current age of saturated media and hyper-kinetic social feeds. How Synergia turned its wild projects into a money-making operation (another example of insular, self-sustaining living) is the kind of detail that would be overlooked in a more indulgent, celebratory documentary. But here’s, it’s Wolf’s way into proving the team’s innocence. Biosphere 2 was not a malicious fakeout. Everyone wanted it to work.

Instead of outright stating any of this, Wolf lets the subjects radiate on their own. They loved being together, loved creating, and even during the toughest moments of Biosphere 2, they look thrilled to be collecting data and guzzling homemade banana wine. (Biosphere living was not easy.) Scientists frowned upon the amateur science of Biosphere 2 — and still might — but Wolf buys into John Allen’s mission, just as many of his followers did in the early days. Watching the film, it’s hard not to feel the same way.

What does that get us? Earlier this year, Clint Eastwood came out swinging against mainstream media with his divisive Richard Jewell, the story of the Atlanta bomber suspect who was dragged through the mud by local newspapers before being vindicated by the law. Spaceship Earth takes a similar jab at TV news’ sensationalist tendencies, but instead of demonizing the journalists behind the circus acts, his story always returns to the creators and their dream of utopia. Their story, flaws and all, is a wonder to behold.

The most meme-able moment: Discussions over the failure of Biosphere 2 became fraught enough that, at one point, John Allen reportedly told his cohort: “In Dante’s Inferno, betrayal is the sin that puts people at the deepest level of Hell.” Great potential for a Linkedin meme.

Spaceship Earth is out now on VOD