The researchers inside Biosphere 2 | Courtesy of NEON

‘Spaceship Earth’ Director Matt Wolf on His Timely Parable for Life Under Lockdown

Doc chronicles the ambitious and eccentric tale of Biosphere 2

15 mins read

“This situation has called to attention how fragile our world is,” says Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf. “I think the Biospherians felt that in a visceral and even bodily way.”

Wolf, speaking with POV ahead of the release of Spaceship Earth this Friday, is one of several filmmakers launching a film at a strange time. The “situation” to which Wolf refers, naturally, is COVID-19. While the novel coronavirus continues to alter virtually every facet of human life, it proves an ironic blessing to Spaceship Earth by accentuating themes already present in Wolf’s film.

Spaceship Earth tells the fascinating story of researchers who boldly tried to recreate Earth’s ecosystem in an enclosed replica dubbed Biosphere 2. Complete with a rainforest, desert, waterfall, and variety of flora and fauna, the project is named for the original biosphere—Earth—with hopes to sustain life just as humans do using the planet’s natural environment, which could lead to humans colonizing space if successful. Wolf’s film goes inside Biosphere 2 with eight researchers who sealed themselves off from the world for a two-year period in 1991 to 1993. Through archival footage and interviews, the probes fundamental questions of human resilience and man’s harmony with the natural world, as the voluntary self-isolation of the eight “Biospherians” draws as much or more media sensationalism than their vanguard research does. Spaceship Earth features cabin fever unlike anything one’s experienced during COVID-19 lockdown, but the project speaks volumes about humankind’s responsibility to environments both natural and social.

The director admits that it’s both strange and fortuitous to release Spaceship Earth in this context after its acclaimed debut at Sundance in January. “It’s bizarre, but it’s also great to have something to throw myself into during quarantine,” admits Wolf. “When your film takes on an uncanny topical relevance that you never could have imagined, you have to go with it.”

The conversation around the film has obviously changed since Sundance, but Wolf sees COVID-19 as a timely entry point. “The Biospherians described the experience as a visceral personal transformation as the result of being in a miniature world,” observes Wolf. “Mark Nelson [one of the eight researchers in Biosphere 2] put it well at the re-entry ceremony. He said, ‘Being in a small world changes who you are.’ The fact that they were responsible for maintaining their own atmosphere and producing the food they needed for sustenance, they could really see the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t take anything for granted, not even a breath of air.” For audiences bored with canned soup and recycled air, it’s hard not to be awed by the ambition and discipline of the experiment, as loony as it seems.

Spaceship Earth transplants audiences into Biosphere 2 using an extensive range of archival material. It features 16mm footage shot by Biospherian Marie Harding and video diaries by fellow researcher Roy Walford in addition to the array of Big Brother-style surveillance footage captured by cameras throughout the enclosure. Extra snippets from news footage and talk shows further reveal the media frenzy the experiment inspired. Wolf says the team didn’t shoot new footage at Biosphere 2, which remains operational through the University of Arizona, partly to avoid the drone footage that has become cliché in documentary. Moreover, additional footage simply isn’t necessary with the wealth of archival material that offers an immersive experience of the facility. “I chose to keep the film in the past and to see how the past resonates in our world today,” observes Wolf.

Despite tackling an expansive collection of archival footage in his previous film Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which mined decades’ worth of news footage recorded 24/7 by reclusive TV buff/armchair historian Marion Stokes, Wolf says he surprisingly didn’t stumble upon any Biosphere 2 coverage in her collection. Wolf notes that despite featuring a wealth of archive — Spaceship Earth draws from over 600 hours of material — the two films hail from different approaches. “Recorded unfolded over a much longer period of time,” explains Wolf. “Whereas with Spaceship Earth, we had a more robust team and we were able to make the film pretty quickly because of it.” Wolf’s earlier feature Teenage similarly displays an interplay between archive and interviews (albeit with a twist) as his body of work considers the power of past images in the present and the lessons they inspire today.

The films share meticulous process in their construction. “What is similar between Spaceship Earth and Marion Stokes is that we had to index the collections,” says Wolf. “Teams created a kind of Dewey Decimal System and database of what existed based on the metadata that was available, whether written on the film canisters by the synergist Marie Harding or on the labels of video cassettes that we had access to.” Drawing from the metadata, Wolf says he and his team would select the materials to digitise and then begin to construct the story. “For this film, I had a robust team that was able to organize the material by topic, mark individual characters we were following, and pull the greatest hits from the body of footage,” explains Wolf.

As with Recorder, Spaceship Earth features a wall-to-wall score by Canuck composer Owen Pallett of Arcade Fire fame. Wolf says that landing Pallett for back-to-back doc scores was relatively easy since they’ve been friends for over a decade. (Palette film work also boasts an Oscar nomination for Spike Jonze’s Her.) “I loved the score he did for Recorder, which was very eclectic and leaned into an analog synth vibe,” says Wolf. “For this film, the idea was to go very epic. It’s an epic story and Owen is known for his orchestrations and his virtuosity in a pop context.” The ambitious score accentuates the adventure on which the Biospherians embark. The film has the grandeur of a space odyssey as it captures the highs and lows of their journey.

Present-day interviews with the Biosphere 2 participants, as well as connected parties like the group’s leader John Allen, who conceived the project and united the team on his utopian Synergia Ranch in New Mexico years earlier. The participants reflect upon the ups and downs of the experiment, noting the inevitable tensions that arose while living in an oversized fishbowl in the public eye. Similarly, their stories draw a compelling rollercoaster ride of hope and idealism as Biosphere 2 is the most ambitious project in a series of endeavours by Synergia Ranch to liberate humanity from the confines of the rat race while emphasising a sustainable, eco-friendly world.

Wolf says that he wasn’t interested in limiting the film to archive in part because he simply loves interviewing people. “When you don’t see people on screen, it becomes harder to relate to them as characters unless the underlying material is itself kind of cinema verité footage, and that’s not the case for this film,” says Wolf. The interviews also serve a practical function by bridging a 25-year gap in material for 50-year story with numerous emotional arcs. The conversations guide surprising revelations in the experiment as participants reflect upon their sense that the integrity of the project might have been compromised and the frustrations with faulty design (waning CO2 levels gradually suffocated and fatigued the group). “It’s such a complex tapestry of characters over such a wide swathe of time in a byzantine story,” adds Wolf. “We needed some anchors to ground you so that you could flow through the half century story span with some bearings.”

Others become emotional and halt their interviews to compose themselves over wounds that still sting. Enter investment banker/hack movie producer Steve Bannon, who assumed the role of acting director of Biosphere 2 in 1993. Spaceship Earth reveals all but a Biosphere coup d’état as Bannon takes control. The reptilian populist and ex-chief strategist for Donald Trump, however, only appears in archives, despite being camera-friendly for docs like American Dharma and The Brink. Wolf says he never sought Bannon’s participation, nor did he find it necessary.

“He functions as metaphor for the contemporary political and economic forces that destroy idealism,” reflects Wolf. “These kind of novel ideas and aspirations are feasible to a certain extent, but there are limitations to them. Forces of politics and economics are often what make them fail.”

A sense of violation is palpable when Bannon appears because his right-wing politics oppose all that the Biosphere 2 teammates and Synergia Ranch cohabitants stand for. The first act of Spaceship Earth contextualises the project within John Allen’s utopian vision. Hippies, outsiders, and alternative thinkers converge on the ranch, rallying around their charismatic leader while undertaking unusual projects. Their activities veer from creating a massive boat, the Heraclitus (an obvious precursor to the ambition of Biosphere 2) to eccentric theatrical performances that combine the avant-garde with the lunatic fringe.

The history of Synergia Ranch haunts the Biosphere 2 project as the media latches on to the ranch’s cult-like qualities. Wolf says that rather than offering sensationalist fodder, the unconventional character of the ranch offered a window through which he could interpret the Biosphere project critically. “It gave clarity towards what the intentions of Biosphere 2 were, but also provided a sense of human accomplishment and achievement,” observes Wolf. “This group achieved incredible things and as they scaled up, the stakes got higher, but the downfall was harsher.”

While the Biosphere 2 project might be a novel hook for audiences, especially in the time of coronavirus, Wolf says the power of the group was his focus. “I think it defies expectations about what a film on Biosphere 2 would be about,” reflects Wolf. “It’s not an environmentalist call to arms or a geeky science film. It’s about counterculture, idealism, and the vision of artists and adventurers. It’s about the conflicts that ensue as they pursue those ideas on an epic scale and with the scrutiny of the media.”

Wolf fittingly argues that the cohesion of the group yields a stronger message about sustainability. “The real take with this film is the idea of small groups as unique models for realizing unprecedented ideas,” says the director. “Despite their success or failure, and the visibility or invisibility of their work, this group’s legacy is that their relationship lasts.”

Spaceship Earth also offers a parable for audiences wondering how life can resume a sense of normalcy when they, like the Biospherians, re-enter the world after prolonged isolation. Wolf says that making Spaceship Earth and releasing it in the COVID context inspires him to reflect upon his own relationships, community, and how to work collaboratively to leave the best imprint on the world. “When I come out, I’m not going to take anything for granted,” says Wolf. “I hope that others will feel that sense of transformation and a renewed kind of responsibility to take care of each other in the world.”

Spaceship Earth lands on VOD/digital release on May 8.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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