Spaceship Earth documentary resuscitates story stranger than fiction of utopian Biosphere 2 experience

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If you thought spending a month indoors watching Netflix and ordering a delivery was some sort of grueling quarantine ordeal, imagine being locked in a giant glass terrarium in the Arizona desert with seven other people for two years while operating a self-sustaining agriculture project and managing a functional replica of the Earth’s ecosystem.

This is exactly what happened in September 1991, when a group of researchers decided to inhabit a project called Biosphere 2 – a free-standing structure of Aztec-style glass pyramids and sci-fi domes that housed an ecological experiment to test the potential durability of life on other planets.

It was the mother of all iso projects, a utopian vision that seemed – as such visions often do – like a combination of mad scientific endeavor and some otherworldly idealistic cult.

This unusual episode in relatively forgotten pop culture history is captured in the new documentary Spaceship Earth (named after the phrase popularized by futurist Buckminster Fuller, a key inspiration for the project), which uses a plethora of footage from ‘archives and new interviews with’ biospherians’ to tell a story of technology, art and environmentalism working in inspired synchronicity – until they eventually collapse at the hands of the great enemy of the world. utopia, humanity itself.

Director Matt Wolf is drawn to eccentrics that tend towards genius (sometimes improbable), as witnessed by Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008), a tribute to the late experimental pop musician, or Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project ( 2019), which recounts how a woman’s 30-year obsession with video recording of television led her to become a key repository of the late 20th century news cycle.

In Spaceship Earth, he perhaps finds the perfect subject for his fascination: visionary experimenters whose futurism finds its roots in counterculture, theater and the arts.

The Biosphere 2 program included theater, architecture, business and ecology.(

Provided: Madman Films

)

Of course, for an outside world fueled by mass media prejudice, it had all the attributes of a potential cult.

From the opening shots of the film of biospheres in their near-futuristic outfit – looking less like fearless explorers than the hapless henchman of a ’90s villain on TV – to early footage locating the genesis adjacent to the project’s hippies in the late 1960s in San Francisco, it’s tempting to draw a common thread connecting spaced self-proclaimed visionaries and the illusion of an apocalyptic cult.

But as Spaceship Earth demonstrates early on, this was a movement that took counter-cultural ideas and pushed them towards tangible progress, designing projects that were committed to transforming the vision of humanity. for the future.

The group gathered around John Allen, a systems environmentalist who was less of a guru and more of a visionary pioneer, closer to a traveler in the fedora hat of a Philip K Dick novel than a charlatan. in a dress of the type that the counter-culture specialized in the crank. outside.

Still from spaceship Earth
The Synergists were led by John Allen, a certified metallurgist and systems ecologist born in Oklahoma.(

Provided: Madman Films

)

Allen’s Synergia Ranch and its Theater of All Possibilities attracted like-minded artists and futurists, whose energy quickly focused on what they saw as the looming ecological disaster in the face of an impoverished planet. in resources.

The peculiar combination of the movement between theatrical sport and science entrepreneurship might be considered a precursor to 21st century tech corporate culture, but seen here in hand-held 16mm grainy images, it’s as if the Jacques Rivette Out 1’s troupe was training for the colonization of space – images that Wolf puts together to look like dispatches from an alternate story of a better future.

Allen and his colleagues speak with admiration for Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), another radical post-60s sci-fi fantasy in which Bruce Dern commune with plants inside a biodome navigating deep space. .

But as the group’s vice-president of finance, Marie Harding, is quick to point out, the Theater of All Possibilities was not a municipality but a company.

Funded in part by Texan billionaire oil scion and eco-sympathizer Ed Bass, the group took a necessarily capitalist approach to funding their designs, and as the 1980s wore on, with their high-tech advancements in space travel and the booming economy, their plans would come to encompass a vision for the development of alien colonies in outer space – an eco-utopia that seemed to herald the best of what business, technology and ecology could achieve in tandem. .

Under the Imprimatur of Space Biosphere Ventures, the team undertook construction of Biosphere 2 on land in Oracle, Arizona, between 1987 and 1991 – at a cost of approximately $ 150 million – and the curiosity surrounding the project would turn its launch into a national media event.

There was even – in one of the film’s most surreal interludes – a Golden Girl, Rue McClanahan, introducing him to viewers at home.

Wolf, as he likes to do, conjures up that waiting atmosphere with so many gloriously bled analog video footage, layered on the familiar barks of ’90s media experts that would be almost nostalgic if they weren’t tainted by ghosts. from the start of the 24 hour sensational cycle news.

Spaceship Earth still
The Biosphere 2 project was funded by Texas billionaire oil heir and philanthropist Ed Bass.(

Provided: Madman Films

)

As he proved in Recorder and his Invisible Youth Chronicle Teenage (2014), Wolf is attentive to the aesthetic of the cultural ephemeral, dwelling on peripheral fashion, the occult vector graphics of current affairs shows or showing a group of black children. in Afro-centric t-shirts wondering why the biodome – containing a self-proclaimed “ethnically diverse” group – had no provision for “brothers in space.”

In those heady moments, Spaceship Earth is reminiscent of the anticipated mounts of last year’s wonderful Apollo 11 – just with more acid wash and hyper-coloring.

Meanwhile, footage showing the early stages of life inside the biosphere – agriculture, the ocean aquarium, distant video call technology connecting occupants to the outdoors – is tuned to the appropriate strains. of This Must Be the Place by Talking Heads, aligning the biospheres with another eccentric American utopian, David Byrne.

But as with all dreams, reality and human pettiness inevitably creep in. (It is telling that no one interviewed seems to remember the disappointing ending to Silent Running.)

“It won’t work,” said a passerby when interviewed at random for a televised vox pop. “People are too mean.”

As the media do their part to dismiss the project as at best “green entertainment” and at worst as a cult, issues of rising carbon dioxide levels, issues of public transparency and feuds between projects conspire to give opponents the fuel they need, and Biosphere 2 gradually transforms into a proto reality TV house – with outside observers wondering who will last the duration inside.

By the time the Eight Biospherians step out of their terrarium, it’s a different world – a world in which their vision has been called into question, and a Goldman Sachs banker named Steve Bannon has been put in charge of administering the project, with a view to generate short-term profits.

It’s a depressing time, sure, but the project has something near a hopeful end, as many of the original members gather at Synergia Ranch in search of any intentions like the cast of Cocoon awaiting their benign alien transport – or at least for SpaceX to give them a well-deserved trip to the stars.

It may have been a flawed experience, even visionary folly, but as Allen said at one point, “it’s all drama.”

Spaceship Earth is being screened on DocPlay, which offers a 30-day free trial.

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