It doesn’t get much stranger than Spaceship Earth, the fascinating new documentary about the unbelievably true story of eight strangers who spent two years quarantined inside a man-built replica of the Earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. And given that Americans are being forced to shelter in place or self-quarantine amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, this 30-year old story about their experiment feels more timely than ever.
In 1991, an ambitious idea to have a small group of people lock themselves in a biosphere in order to see how they could ultimately survive became a worldwide phenomenon as fans and the media alike kept daily track of life inside the dome, where these volunteers faced life-threatening problems and criticism from the scientific community.
Despite a depleting oxygen supply, factions within the group and other problems faced by the team, Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo, and Linda Leigh managed to spend two years, from Sept. 26, 1991 to Sept. 26, 1993 inside the structure.
While what actual scientific results came out of the experiment have since been debated -- it has been deemed a “failure” in certain circles -- there’s no doubting the extraordinary feat -- and what the Smithsonian Institution called “acts of vision and courage” -- achieved by the construction of Biosphere 2 and the people who lived inside it.
In fact, it’s that spirit and fascination surrounding the latter that captured the attention of director Matt Wolf, who became determined to tell the story of its inventors and participants.
“I was nine years old when Biosphere 2 happened, so I had no recollection of it,” he tells ET’s Ash Crossan about discovering what looked like photos of people on the set of a sci-fi movie was actually the members (clad in bright red jumpsuits) from an experiment that took place nearly 30 years ago. “It didn’t take me long to realize that this was in fact a real project… and at that point I was just determined to tell their story.” (Although, it should be noted that Biopshere 2 did inspire the 1996 Pauly Shore box office dud, Bio-Dome.)
While the experiment seems stranger than fiction, the backstory of the mission is even more bizarre. Twenty-five years prior, the people who conceived of and went on to create Biosphere 2 were nothing more than a theater collective led by inventor John Allen. Over time, the group went on to tackle other projects like building a sustainable farm and a ship from scratch. They eventually traveled the world, helping to build structures and foundations before returning to the U.S. to put their full efforts into figuring out how to combat climate change.
“It’s really about a group of people trying to live sustainably on Earth,” says Wolf, who sat down with Allen as well as other core members of the group and the Biosphere project to capture their story before everything completely faded from our collective memory and was written off as nothing more than a failed experiment.
“They did this huge project that was this media spectacle and then was really torn down. And in a lot of ways, their life's work has been totally discounted so there’s a lot of pain there,” the director says, revealing that nothing was off limits. “But once they're on board, these guys felt like they had made history and they wanted people to know their story.”
In addition to the interviews, Wolf also had access to 600 hours of archival footage, which Wolf says revealed so many unexpected “twists and turns [in] the story,” including accusations of being a cult, strange physical therapies and practices, and untold stories about what happened inside the dome. “It’s pretty amazing that there was footage to show you every part of it,” he adds.
Perhaps the biggest twist in Spaceship Earth is not what happens on screen, but what has happened in real-life, as the spread of COVID-19 has forced people around the world to stay at home and practice social distancing. This time, however, instead of peering in, everyone is looking out.
“Nobody could have anticipated a few months after Sundance that we would be quarantined but the film has taken on this whole new dimension,” Wolf says of the film’s premiere at the Utah festival in January just months before the virus spread throughout the United States.
Despite the newfound resonance surrounding the film, the director doesn’t see Spaceship Earth as a warning about life under quarantine. In fact, he sees it as something far more positive -- and aspirational -- for the people who watch it.
“It’s made me think about quarantine in a really different way. I think the film is ultimately inspiring and a big part of that is that these people who went to live quarantine for two years inside Biosphere 2 came out transformed and they had a different insight about the effects that they had on the bigger world and what their responsibilities were,” Wolf says, adding: “I think that would be pretty great if we all come back to this new world after the coronavirus and we think about each other and how we’re accountable to each other.”