In 1991 eight individuals stepped into an airtight ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2 prepared to be locked inside for two years. Their goal was to see if it was possible to create sustainable life for humans on other planets. While the intentions of these biospherians came from a pure place, the unexpected worldwide media attention the project garnered caused many to question if it was nothing more than an elaborate publicity stunt.
As Matt Wolf’s documentary Spaceship Earth explains, their experiment was far from a stunt, however, as with many of the groups’ previous ventures, it was filled with questionable choices. Utilizing decades worth of archived footage, including material filmed inside the biosphere, Wolf constructs a vivid portrait of a group people who blended art and science to better understand nature.
Lead by the charismatic John Allen, inventor and founder of the Synergia Ranch, these self-proclaimed “synergists” came together because of their desire to make change. What they found within each other was a makeshift family, one that used theatre to provide context and purpose to their creative ambitions. They challenged themselves with projects that forced them to think outside the box and learn new things on the fly.
Soon they evolved from a traveling theatre troupe to building ships and museums from scratch. While their methods were unconventional, causing outsiders to deem them a cult, their successes could not be denied. Embracing capitalism early on, including partnering with wealthy investor Ed Bass, Allen’s vision for the group seemed limitless. That all changed with BIOSPHERE 2, a project that ultimately exposed the dangers that can arise when egos and the financial bottom line supersedes environmental need.
A cautionary tale of the thin line between innovation and greed, Wolf captures how capitalism can corrupt even the most well-meaning ventures. By spending a great deal of time focusing on Allen and his fellow synergists, Spaceship Earth brings earnest humanity to its stranger-than-fiction story. One is invested in the well-being of the eight biosherians, especially when the project goes horribly wrong at points.
Though the film hints at Allen’s ego being partly to blame for the problems that arise in the project, Spaceship Earth never capitalizes on the tension it builds. A key standoff does not erupt in fury, but rather is resolved with obedience and a hug. Furthermore, Allen’s questionable practices do not quite get the same disapproving eye that Bass, and the emergence of Steve Bannon in the latter sections, get in the film. While Spaceship Earth may not be the hard-hitting expose one initially believes it will be, Wolf builds an entertaining and informative work that cuts through the media propaganda. Spaceship Earth is a testament to what can be achieved when people come together for a shared purpose.