‘Spaceship Earth’ Director Matt Wolf On One The Best Movie Twists This Year

In 1991, in the Arizona desert, eight human beings entered a sealed off ecosystem for two years in an effort to study if a self-sustained existence was possible for future colonization of other planets. Called Biosphere 2, back then, this was a pretty big story – that eventually faded into zeitgeist obscurity. Today, Pauly Shore’s 1996 movie Bio-Dome somehow has a larger cultural footprint. What’s fascinating about Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth (which will be available on-demand this weekend) is that not only does it get into the technical aspects of what made this mission remarkable, the documentary also explains why this event lost its place in history.

Mainly, the mission was fraught with controversy. From the makeup of the crew members – who might be better described as theater kids and/or commune residents than actual researchers – to some bending and/or breaking of the rules. (At one point a crew member leaves to have finger surgery and returns with new supplies. Another time, when carbon dioxide levels were getting too high, a scrubber was installed.) As Wolf explains, it wasn’t so much that these events happened, but more not being upfront with the media about these incidents cost them their credibility. And, in the process, their place in history.

And then, after people stopped paying attention, a villain showed up to sabotage all the research. And who the villain turned out to be is pretty nuts.

I have to admit, the idea of sequestering oneself for a substantial amount of time doesn’t seem that crazy anymore.

Oh, yeah. I’m sure there is a certain claustrophobia to it, but I think just having the option to go into nature. I live in New York City, too, and I go to a park where there’s five million drivers swarming around me. But I think if you were having a hard day, and you took me through the biosphere, you could climb up the trellis of the structure and go hang out in a tree or you could go diving and hang out with the coral reef. There was just a lot of room for private space beyond the living quarters.

I somewhat remember when this happened. But it kind of got lost to history.

And that’s precisely why I was interested in telling this story. I’m really drawn towards these kind of forgotten histories: where something was a huge story with huge global implications, but it’s kind of faded from collective memory. And I think it’s really the media depiction of the project that resulted in that. Which, at the end of the day, kind of rebuked as this failure or fraud. And, in fact, there were a lot of really innovative and meaningful things that were gleaned from the project. And it has a kind of enhanced relevance today with accelerating climate change and, of course now, the pandemic. But I think the media had the final verdict and the verdict was that it was a failure or a fraud. And that really diminished the legacy of the project. And for many decades it’s languished.

You’re right. But when you look at it on the surface, the people in charge of Biosphere did a pretty poor job of presenting it as something that wasn’t fraudulent? These were more theater kids than scientists. I almost can’t blame the media for being skeptical of what they were doing.

Yeah. But Biosphere 2 was in a laboratory. In an academic sense it was this closed system with a different kind of science that was based on observation and collecting data. So, the people who were stewards of that world had a variety of practical skills that shouldn’t only encompass academic science credentials. They had to be good farmers and gardeners and ecologists. But also the whole aspect of the project of being enclosed for two years through glass that people could look through. I mean, you have to be an adventurer, too. And I think the project was so outside the realm of anything that had been done and so futurist in it’s ambition and conceit. To me, it was not surprising that artists pursue it. I think what the problem was is that the presentation and representation of the project shied away from the reality of their background. And when the press caught on that these Biospherians didn’t have traditional scientific credentials, that lack of transparency bit them in the butt. But, at the same time, a lot of astronauts don’t have PhDs. They are on a mission. And that’s true of these guys too.

Well, yes, some astronauts are pilots.

Yeah, exactly. And I would say that a lot of them had practical skills, but that there wasn’t a defined skill set to pursue a project of this nature. To me, the issue wasn’t their academic credentials, it was a definition of what an experiment is. So, I can understand why that would raise eyebrows to a more traditional scientist. But, also, I think both kinds of inquiries are interesting and worthwhile and that just even creating the spectacle of Biosphere 2 is meaningful in terms of people thinking about the planet as one closed system itself and how people might be stewards of it.

Right. And I understand what their theory was and everything you just said, it’s I tend to think they would have gotten better press if they had maybe one scientist…

And, to that point, Dr. Roy Walford, the medical doctor was an established scientist, but he was also kind of an idiosyncratic performance artist, too. He had authored a book on the 120 Year Diet and did all this real academic research on aging and nutrition. He was also a wacky guy.

Right. He didn’t make it to 120. Though, he made it to 80. That’s a good run.

Yeah, he lived a good life. No, I’m not defensive of the project but I think part of the problem with the management of the project is how they set it up in the public eye. In a certain way they set the ground rules, whether intentionally or not…

Do you think if they laid all their cards at the beginning and said, “Here’s what we are, here’s what we’re doing,” they would have gotten less strife back?

Or, as a journalist, if you express skepticism and people withhold information, it’s only going to make you want to dig deeper and to substantiate those questions and to see what’s really going on. And so controversy was brewing because they weren’t being transparent and that’s a fatal flaw if you’re dealing with something on the world stage.

[Spoilers below about who the mysterious villain turns out to be. If you plan to watch Spaceship Earth and want to be shocked, stop reading. If you are on the fence, this bit of information below might make you want to watch.]

So the crazy thing, this movie has one of the best twists. When I first heard Steve Bannon’s name I did a double-take. “Wait, that Steve Bannon?”

I asked all the writers, “Please don’t give it away.” Because when it is a surprise for people, it makes the movie so much more exciting. And I think when the film premiered at Sundance, the audience audibly gasped. I could hear like a “What?” coming from the audience. And it’s one of those stories that just has so many twists and turns. It’s like Byzantine in its plot, but it’s kind of like the mission’s over so I guess the movie’s over. And then … bam, there’s another twist. And that twist really brings the consequences of the project into the present. Because this kind of contemporary political villain takes over Biosphere 2 and in a lot of sense, the political players that are in power right now, they’re taking over Biosphere I: our planet. And doing all sorts of things to pillage our natural world. So, it’s a kind of preshrank metaphor, you know? But of, course, now the fact that we’re quarantined maybe makes it a little more timely than that.

After the events of your movie end, I was reading more about hat happened. Apparently, they sue Bannon? And, in court, Bannon refers to one of the Biospherians as a “bimbo.”

Yeah. And it’s kind of like, we could go really soap opera-y with the film, or we could try to find bigger ideas in the intentions of the project, but also a cautionary tale in the downfall. So, in some ways, we kind of didn’t indulge in the tabloid-y stuff of Biosphere 2, even though there are tons of twists and turns. And I think the story, the word I would use is, it’s just bizarre. It’s a bizarre story. And the other thing is, as a filmmaker, how often do you come across a story that’s so unparalleled in that everything was filmed. So the fact that we had access to all this footage also just was wild. And so, embrace that stuff, but also then wanted to go into the gray areas and the nuance, and to try to unpack who these people were and what they aspire to. So, for us, that was the focus more so than the tabloid-y stuff. But yeah, there’s so much stuff, we had to find our focus on it.

Yeah, I get what you’re saying about tabloid-y but it still happened. There’s also a story about when they tried another mission in 1994, two of the people in the original project went and vandalized the biosphere and broke windows and opened doors to try to sabotage it. That’s pretty remarkable.

Yeah, there’s a lot of drama. It was real saga. Kind of an epic saga and soap opera to a certain extent.

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