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Exploring the science fiction reality of Spaceship Earth with director Matt Wolf
Nearly 30 years ago, a band of forward-thinking rebels sought to build a new world to create a better path for our own. Biosphere 2 was a massive vivarium that, within its glass and metal walls, contained a rainforest, a dessert, a farm, and an ocean complete with a living coral reef. For two years, eight scientists were sealed inside to discover how a self-sustaining, self-contained colony might be built in the future. It was a daring endeavor that drew the world's attention and repeatedly courted scandal. Now, Spaceship Earth dares us to look back and reconsider the efforts, failings, and successes of the biospherians.
Directed by Matt Wolf, Spaceship Earth is a new documentary that takes audiences inside Biosphere 2 and back 54 years to the seeds of its creation. To dig deeper into the rich contents of this film, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Wolf about how he brought the story of scientists, misfits, artists, and their out-of-this-world adventure together.
When Biosphere 2 was launched, Wolf was about nine years old, so he took no notice of the headlines that reported on the science and scandals under the dome. It wasn't until two years ago that his interest was sparked. "I saw these intriguing images online of eight people in bright red jumpsuits standing in front of a glowing glass pyramid," he said, explaining the striking poster image of Spaceship Earth. "They looked like the band Devo. I actually thought they were stills from a science-fiction film. Of course, it didn't take me long to realize that these people, in fact, lived inside that glass dome for two years. When I tracked them down, I was really determined to tell their story."
Some might marvel that the masterminds behind Biosphere 2 weren't just scientists, but also a collective of artists and activists who call themselves Synergists. To Wolf, that made perfect sense. "It didn't come as a surprise to me that the people who conceived of this wild project were artists," he said. "That's what artists do." As an artist himself, the documentarian connected to the grand ambition of the Synergists' endeavor. "What they did is — quite literally — reimagine a world," Wolf marveled. "I found that very inspiring and I related to how they operated as a small group. Because in some ways, that's how I work on films: I put together a group of talented people, and we put our minds together toward a common goal."
To that end, Wolf decided to focus his film on those directly related to the creation and first experiment phase of Biosphere 2. This included scientists, Synergists, and the biospherians who spent two years inside the three-acre, eight-story greenhouse. "I always do a lot of research and talk to almost anybody who was involved in a project," Wolf said. "And I try to put together a cast of characters who have different points of view and different experiences to flush out a story. A story like this, it's quite epic. It covers 50 years of a group of people's lives, and it really is a network of individuals who have different perspectives."
Wolf also interviewed journalists, both local and national, who covered Biosphere 2. However, none of those interviews made it into the film's final cut. "I ended up thinking that the material speaks for itself," Wolf said, referring to archival footage of news reports featured in the film. "It represents the point of view of the media. It wasn't about trying to identify one individual on the media. It was about trying to understand the media, almost like a character itself, and how it reacted to and responded to the spectacle of Biosphere 2."
As is reflected in Spaceship Earth, Wolf felt the press got it wrong when it came to characterizing Biosphere 2. Headlines and news clips within the doc show a fixation on the flaws in the experiment's execution and the alleged "cult-like" nature of the Synergists. "I think it was characterized as a cult because the group who created it had a charismatic leader, John Allen," Wolf shared. "He was idiosyncratic. [It didn't help] that the group had been involved in theatre and had nicknames and all sorts of things that — from the outside — appeared to be pretty wacky."
Wolf reflected that Allen's interaction with the media only made him seem more mysterious. "There wasn't a lot of transparency about the backgrounds of the people who created and managed Biosphere 2," he said. "In some senses, by shying away from describing their backgrounds and how that their activities led to this project, I think it created skepticism and some suspicion within the media. This was an unusual counter-cultural group. When you are that kind of person and you go on Good Morning America, the two things often don't really jive."
All of this informed how Wolf chose to shape Spaceship Earth, which comes off as a celebration of the Synergists, their creative drive, environmental activism, and bold ambition. For this reason, he chose not to reach out to figures who come off like the film's villains: Biosphere 2 financier Ed Bass and businessman-turned-political strategist Steve Bannon. "I chose to make the film really be about these small groups, the Synergists and the biospherians," Wolf explained. "I didn't want to make a film that really delved into complex issues between Ed Bass and John Allen. To me, he was the benevolent benefactor backstage, who ultimately was faced with a pretty serious predicament as the media scrutiny of the project intensified."
As for Bannon, Wolf said, "Steve Bannon gets the microphone too much. I didn't want him to take over the conversation of this history." Still, he went on to note that as an advisor to President Trump, Bannon "was explicitly connected to the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement." To him, this controversial conservative figure is less of a character within Spaceship Earth and more a metaphor for how politics can pervert the path of science and discovery. "In some senses, it's not really about Steve Bannon, this villain that we love to discuss," he explained, "It's about contemporary politics and how it threatened the Biosphere, but also people who are trying to do interesting and new things."
It's Wolf's hope that Spaceship Earth will inspire people the way of discovering the Synergists and their goals inspired him. And with the film's release coming out in a time of quarantine, audiences may relate more deeply to the biospherians' story.
"I hope the film is useful — or at least interesting — to people to compare their experience," Wolf said. "The biggest takeaway I got was from biospherian, Mark Nelson. He experienced personal transformation through the process of being quarantined. When he came out, at the re-entry ceremony, he said at his speech, 'Living in a small, enclosed world changes who you are.'"
Wolf mused, "That really struck me because inside, the biospherians couldn't take anything for granted. They had to create their own atmosphere to breathe and produce the food that they needed for sustenance. When one comes outside, they don't take the basic everyday things for granted. I think that will be the case for us too. I expect that a lot of people will feel transformed by this experience. And I can only hope they will feel a new sense of responsibility and accountability to our world because it's more fragile than we ever imagined."
Spaceship Earth is now available via Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas, and participating drive-ins.