Producers: Matt Wolf and Stacey Reiss   Director: Matt Wolf   Cast: John Allen, Tony Burgess, William Dempster, Kathy Dyhr, Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone and Larry Winokour   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

The Biosphere 2 endeavor is often dismissed as an oddity of the nineties, the work of cranks out for self-promotion who ignored the rigors of true scientific investigation and broke faith with the public they cultivated as well.  It’s that spirit of ridicule that led to a movie like “Bio-Dome” (1996), one of the worst of the vehicles fashioned for the dubious talents of Pauly Shore—which, as most people know, is saying quite a lot.

Matt Wolf’s documentary is a persuasive rejoinder to that derogatory characterization.  While “Spaceship Earth” doesn’t overlook the flaws of the project and shows how, and why, the self-proclaimed experimental “bubble” burst in the end, it also recovers the idealism that originally animated the venture and persists among some of its participants.

The idea of building a self-sustaining vivarium that would test the possibility of supporting human life in extraterrestrial environments originated with John Allen, a charismatic thinker who drew followers around him in sixties San Francisco.  A number of them are interviewed in the first section of the film, describing their initial contact with Allen and their participation in The Theatre of All Possibilities, an eccentric performing group he founded in 1967.  They all then moved in 1969 to the his so-called Synergia Ranch near Santa Fe, where they undertook a variety of experiments centered on the blending of ecology and technology.  The construction of the Heraclitus, a ship devoted to ecological research, followed, as did the founding of Allen’s high-minded Ecotechnics Institute.

Wolf and editor David Teague use new interviews shot by Sam Wootton, along with archival footage shot by members of the group, to document these varied activities, including the eeventful round-the-world voyage of the Heraclitus.  It then turns to the project Allen spearheaded in the eighties to build what was called Biosphere 2 (the first being earth itself), which, with substantial support from Texas billionaire Ed Bass, was constructed in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert between 1987 and 1991.  A crew of eight was chosen and sealed in the structure with great fanfare in September, 1991.

The result, shown in footage shot within the Biosphere and archival material from news broadcasts, was decidedly mixed.  Inside the installation, there were occasional personal conflicts.  The medical specialist, Roy Walford, had peculiar ideas about nutrition and imposed his ideas about caloric reduction so persistently that the crew members suffered substantial weight loss.  (Walford also protested having to set aside his research to join in more menial tasks.)  One participant, Jane Poynter, had to leave the closed structure for surgery on an injured finger, and returned with some bags of material from the outside—a violation of protocol.  And a dangerous fall in oxygen levels led to the surreptitious installation of a CO2 scrubber. 

Those problems, when added to the criticism of the project by members of the scientific establishment as a stunt that could result in no credible data, were instrumental in shifting public opinion, and to radical changes in governance.  When botanist Tony Burgess, who helped design the Biosphere and was a member of its scientific advisory panel, voiced his view that Allen was exhibiting conduct that verged on paranoia, Bass, who judged that the project needed to become more financially productive, engineered the removal of Allen and his most loyal staffers and turned management over to none other than Steve Bannon—yes, that Steve Bannon, a young monetary specialist from Goldman Sachs.  Naturally, recriminations follow.

But the idealism that stoked John Allen’s followers from the sixties on has not entirely evaporated.  “Shapeship Earth” closes with some of them, still living at the Synergia Ranch, enthusing about their experiences.  The movement may, as Burgess says, have had cultish elements, but that’s typical of great enterprises, and though he was pointedly criticized by many of Allen’s followers after what they perceived as his betrayal, even he still expresses a degree of wistful nostalgia for the project as it was envisaged.  And Biosphere 2 continues to serve as a research center, since 2007 under the aegis of the University of Arizona.                       

Helped by a supportive score from Owen Pallett, “Spaceship Earth” helps to reclaim a venture that many consigned to the status of a Barnumesque folly, portraying those who supported John Allen’s vision as perhaps misguided idealists rather than a bunch of eccentrics–without overlooking the oddities in the enterprise.