Though completed long before shelter-in-place orders descended upon the nation, Spaceship Earth seems tailor-made for our moment of "nature is healing" and self-isolation. The documentary tells the story of an ambitious early-1990s experiment that saw eight people live inside a closed-off artificial ecosystem, known as Biosphere 2, for two years. The brainchild of a countercultural, experimental theater group (yes, really) known as the Synergists, the biosphere was intended to test whether such environments might be viable should Earth be rendered uninhabitable. In short, the results were a mixed bag, as various factors — including (again, really) Steve Bannon — caused the project to unravel.
"There was a prescience and insight in their activities that begs to be recognized," Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf says of the minds behind Biosphere 2. "There were not that many people talking about the threat of climate change in the early 1980s, let alone thinking about novel projects that might do something to address that."
"I hope this film is inspiring, but I also think it's a cautionary tale because there are limitations towards idealistic ambition," Wolf adds. "They created a kind of theatrical spectacle that was educational as well as instructive. But when they put those unconventional ideas in the mass media, the two proved to be irreconcilable."
With Spaceship Earth now available on digital platforms, VOD, and Hulu, Wolf spoke to EW about reframing the story of Biosphere 2 and how the story can inform our current moment.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'm sure everyone is asking you this, but how does it feel for this film about people isolating themselves in a closed environment to be coming out at a moment when everyone is doing exactly that?
MATT WOLF: It's totally uncanny and unexpected. When the film premiered at Sundance in January, no one could possibly imagine that the circumstance of the biospherians would so directly apply to our own collective experience. So I've been thinking a lot about how the film, hopefully, can give some perspective. The biospherian Mark Nelson said at the re-entry ceremony that living in a closed system changes who you are, and my sense from all the biospherians is that they had an incredible personal transformation from living in this miniature world, and it was largely because they could see the consequences of their actions. They were responsible for creating the atmosphere that they needed to breathe, and to harvest the food for sustenance, and they couldn't take anything for granted, not even a breath. And so when you come out into the larger world, the enormous closed system of the planet, you have a new and visceral sense of your own personal responsibility and accountability to others. So I hope that through this experience of quarantine and self-isolation, people come out with a sense of personal transformation and a renewed kind of accountability to other people, but also a collective responsibility to protect our world, which clearly is more fragile than people ever considered.
How did you first become interested in this story, and how did that lead you to make the film?
I was doing research online, and I randomly came across this striking and bizarre image of eight people in bright red jumpsuits, like the band Devo, in front of a glass pyramid. And I genuinely assumed that they were stills from a science fiction film, but of course quickly realized that, in fact, this structure is real and that these people lived inside of it. So I went about tracking people down and was determined to tell their story. I went to [the Synergists' Santa Fe headquarters] Synergia Ranch when I discovered that this idiosyncratic group conceived of the project, and at their commune, I was able to find hundreds of 16 mm films and analog videotapes and thousands of still images. I was just astounded. They understood that they were doing something historically significant and they rigorously documented it, but nobody had tapped into that archive. So it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and also a big responsibility to tell their story, because they have largely been forgotten and their work has been rebuked as this spectacular failure.
How did the biospherians react when you approached them about doing this film, after they had received so much of that skepticism and negative coverage from the media?
There was certainly hesitation precisely for the reason you said; they were burned by the media, and people have really flattened their story and looked at the legacy of Biosphere 2 in sensational terms. The biggest part of my job is earning trust and building relationships, and I do that by pursuing my homework to really learn everything that's been said about a project, everything that my potential subjects have said about their own work, and trying to consider how I can add to that conversation and take it further.
What I'm interested in is the ambiguity in the story and the complexity of people and their intentions and motivations, and so I went to them saying that I was really interested in this prehistory of Biosphere 2. I wanted to take a much larger view than just this one project, and to understand the ideas and activities of an unusual group, and how they found expression in this project, and what the scope and ambition of it was, and what its limitations were as well. I think people responded to that approach, and they came on board to allow me to tell their story.
On that note, you spend a lot of time in the film fleshing out not just the background of the biosphere, but of the Synergists and their earlier activities. Why did you take that approach, and why was that element of it so important to you to explore?
In the most simple sense, I found it fascinating. Part of the criticism of the group was that they didn't have conventional science backgrounds, and I think also part of the miscommunication about the project is that it was called an experiment. It was a different kind of science, a whole systems approach, as opposed to conventional or academic science that approaches a project with a hypothesis. So that created a lot of skepticism, but I came to understand that this group was engaged in what you might call a lifetime experiment, and also a human experiment. They pursued experimental theater. They were adventurers who traveled the world and started all sorts of enterprises. And they were futurists who were imagining scenarios for the future that didn't yet exist.
So I was interested in the idea of an experiment that far exceeded the confines of Biosphere 2, but I also was interested in this group because they defied expectations and stereotypes of hippies. They were workaholics, and they were also capitalists, and they were trying to work in a model in which they could pursue ecologically and economically viable projects that were sustainable.
What else do you hope viewers take away from the biospherians' story?
I really hope that they look at this unique model of small groups being engines of change. We are inevitably gonna re-enter a different world after quarantining, and we're gonna have to modify our actions and how we deal with this world. I feel like this story presents a viable model to do that, to think and act differently and to realize new ideas. Increasingly, it feels really unlikely that we'll reach consensus as a nation or, certainly, as a global community. What does feel more viable is to find people with shared interests and common goals on a smaller scale, and to do something. And this is a story about a group of people who had crazy ideas, but they did things. They didn't just talk about them. I think that's what we need right now, but so often new ideas are met with cynicism. And I hope that this film, in some senses, departs from the cynicism that characterized this project so that people can think more optimistically and open-mindedly about doing things that that keep the future in mind, that imagine better futures. Or more sustainable ones, at least.