In 1991, a group of eight experts of varied disciplines headed into a self-contained structure spanning just over three acres in Oracle, Arizona, with the plan to stay there without leaving for two years. Inside the large glass polygon called Biosphere 2 were multiple biomes: a desert, rainforest, and ocean with a coral reef. The experiment was an offshoot of an idealistic commune of performers and environmentalists and bankrolled by philanthropist Ed Bass (a billionaire, according to Forbes). The idea was to see whether life could sustain in a closed environment. It was thought that the experiment’s implications could help humanity understand what it would be like to colonize another planet.
Biosphere 2 was a media sensation, its inhabitants’ mission covered like that of astronauts. Its story only became more sensational when the experiment’s parameters were violated—one “biospherian” who had to exit for emergency surgery brought back in duffel bags that contained new materials. Then news leaked that oxygen had been pumped into the structure, quashing the notion that Biosphere 2 was entirely self-sufficient. A flurry of critical coverage ensued and the experiment was deemed a failure.
And yet, many who entered the environment remain steadfast in their belief of the importance of their experiment. They have contributed interviews to director Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth, which traces the experiment through its commune roots (led by charismatic leader John Allen) to its aftermath, which involves a rather reviled figure who was briefly a staple of recent politics. (Wolf requested that I refrain from spoiling the third-act reveal of that figure’s identity.) I spoke with Wolf about his archival-footage-filled movie, the experiment’s lasting relevance, and the bizarre coincidence of releasing a movie about a group that effectively self-quarantined during a time when much of the world has orders to do so. An edited and condensed transcript of our phone discussion from earlier this week is below.
JEZEBEL: What are your thoughts about releasing a movie during a pandemic that continues to command the lion’s share of the public’s attention?
MATT WOLF: At first, I was like, “Is it going to be gauche to promote a movie as people are experiencing real tragedy?” As this has persisted and people are settling into a kind of new normal, I feel okay about it. In fact, I feel like it could be useful, not only as a form of entertainment. I feel like the ideas in it might provide some ideas about isolation or, more significantly, some sort of form of transformation that might happen through the experience and how that might change people’s relationships to the larger world.
This movie hews so closely to our societal lockdown that its release feels like kismet.
But it’s also just an entry point. I think for this film, there’s a kind of bizarre and uncanny topical aspect to it now, but the ideas in it I already thought were pretty prescient in terms of the need for people to reimagine the world and small groups being a viable model to do that. And also, to some extent, the failure of the group’s neoliberal model to combine economic and ecological sustainability. At times, I saw the film as hopefully inspiring about people putting their minds together around common goals and achieving unprecedented ideas. But I also saw it as a cautionary tale about the political and economic forces that squelch idealism and the challenges of trying to do new things and realize novel ideas. In some senses, I hope the topicality of it is an entry point and that these other ideas resonate.
Was the topicality of it an entry point for you, or were you more interested in the narrative when setting out to make this film?
I make films that are mostly about forgotten histories and things that I think are ripe for reappraisal because they have an enhanced contemporary relevance or urgency. My last film [Recorder] was about a woman who recorded TV for 24 hours a day. [The documentary’s subject Marion Stokes] was obviously an unknown entity but her story has an enhanced meaning in the context of fake news and she had such prescient observations about the media. I felt that way too when I discovered this story, and also I like films that utilize a huge, unprecedented archive. I was taken by the prehistory of Biosphere 2 and the activity of this very unusual countercultural group. When I went to their ranch, I was brought into this temperature-controlled closet that had hundreds of 16mm films and analog video cassettes and thousands of images. I was just blown away that this group had the foresight to document what they were doing because they believed they were making a historical contribution. The fact that their work had been discounted and rebuked and that nobody had utilized that archive was both an amazing opportunity and a huge responsibility. When I realized that not only there were archives but that the raw footage of the biospherian Roy Walford’s archives were accessible—and that this story, I felt, spoke a lot about not just climate change but trying to do things in the world—it was just the perfect trifecta. Not to mention that it’s one of the stranger-than-fiction stories that you couldn’t even make up.
Was it difficult to gain trust in order to access that archive?
It was difficult. People over the years have tried to make this film, and there were a lot of reservations. It’s a group of people who really took a beating from the media, and I think at the same time there was a sensitivity and a sense of injustice that all of the ambitious and meaningful work they had pursued had been discounted and forgotten. The main takeaway for most people when I said I was working on this was, “Oh, you mean Biodome with Pauly Shore?” There was a lot of sensitivity, but I think the core of my job is to build relationships based on trust. And the way I do that is by doing my homework. When I go to somebody, I’m aware of what’s been said about them and how they’ve discussed their life. I try to think about a way I can add to that conversation instead of regurgitating what’s been said before. My interest was in telling this bigger story that unfolds over 50 years and to reappraise the work of this group beyond Biosphere 2. I think that intrigued them but also it’s been affirming for them. We were at Sundance, where they saw it for the first time. They came up on stage and received a standing ovation. I think that was a transformative experience for some of them because for so long, nobody has paid attention to what they did. Their greatest work is considered a spectacular failure. There is something bittersweet about that.
One of the things that’s so useful about this movie is its explanation of the gulf between the media coverage and the lived experience. Your movie is, in many ways, a story about media.
Totally. And this [happened] at a moment when there was an appetite for voyeuristic entertainment. I read a New York Times headline once that said MTV’s Real World was the answer to Biosphere 2. It’s been rumored that John de Mol, Jr., the creator of Big Brother, was inspired by Biosphere 2. Of course with their ecological calamities, it brings to mind Survivor. It was at a cultural moment when people were looking to find entertainment in a human experiment. We’re talking about a group that is countercultural and really defies categories associated with hippies or environmentalists. They were experimental people and experimental people don’t necessarily belong on Good Morning America. There was a disconnect between the culture that gave birth to this project and the mainstream media spectacle that surrounded it. But that was also what was captivating about the project: It was a kind of living theater of ecological sustainability. I think that was very potent, that mix of idealistic intention and rigorous inquiry with theatrical spectacle and a human experiment. Those ingredients proved to not work together in the eyes of the media. I also think that people have become trained to be skeptical, particularly of outliers pursuing new things. People are a little allergic to giving outliers the benefit of the doubt and really taking a kind of idealism at face value. But also, this group mismanaged the media in their lack of transparency, which stoked criticism, justifiably.
Speaking of reality TV, something that struck me about your film is that it’s light on depictions of the turmoil, tension, and even romance/sex of the biospherians during the experiment. Is there any particular reason why?
It wasn’t really there. I think the fantasy is that was the dominant experience for the biospherians, but they were working their asses off all day. That’s not to say there wasn’t interpersonal conflict and extreme disagreement about mismanagement, which is in the film, but when I first saw the footage that Roy Walford shot inside, I said to my editor, “Oh God, is this going to be boring?” He was like, “No, I like it. I think it’s meditative.” It is meditative. I think the monotony of it is telling of what the actual experience inside was like. They had a lot of work to do but they entered a kind of outer space experience, as Mark Nelson describes it, and they were really viscerally and bodily connected to the world they had created. I was like, “Won’t there be footage of them screaming at each other and spitting on each other?” And that just wasn’t the case. In a sense, I leaned into the material that I had but also the authentic experience that was described to me. I don’t think it was out of a defensiveness that people veered away from it, I actually think that the task at hand was more important to them than whatever interpersonal discomfort that made the project challenging.
After thinking about the Biosphere 2 as much as you have, do you think there’s viable information to extract from the experiment on its own terms and not just as a famous failure?
I think the idea of the experiment is that closed systems can work, that people can be stewards of a miniature world and manage atmospheric dynamics and to feed themselves off a small plot of land. It’s a model for how people can do that in the enormous closed system that’s Earth. I think the experiment had shortcomings, and it defined ground rules that weren’t tenable for the first dry run. It wasn’t 100 percent self-sufficient, but that shouldn’t discount that this group of people were, within limitations, able to use their creativity to make this apparatus work in such a way that it could sustain life. I think people forget that they easily could have left. There was a door. But they were so committed to staying. And I really am inspired by their dedication to that. I think if the experiment had continued, there could have been a lot learned about sustainable living on Earth and also the potential for closed systems in the future. To me, the ultimate failure of the experiment is that it was repurposed. It’s no longer being used as the closed system it was designed to be.
Spaceship Earth hits drive-ins, “select pop-up city-scape projections (safely accessible by quarantined city dwellers),” and digital outlets this Friday, May 8.