If ever a documentary was in tune with the spirit of lockdown it is this very absorbing film about Biosphere 2 – a colossal eco-experimental project in the Arizona desert in the early 90s, which had its roots in 60s counterculture and which I knew nothing about before this.
My ignorance was so complete, in fact, that for the first few minutes of this film I kept suspecting some kind of docu-spoof. But it’s all real, right up to the disclosure of a horribly familiar villain right at the end, whose identity it would be unsporting to reveal.
This is the story of the eccentric but charismatic commune leader John P Allen, who ran a collective ranch in New Mexico, where in the 70s he met the rebellious young billionaire Ed Bass, who offered to put some of his family oil money at Allen’s disposal to realise one of his most cherished visions: building a gigantic biodome-style enclosed ecosystem, rather like the one in Douglas Trumbull’s classic sci-fi movie Silent Running. Here, they could conduct a two-year experiment with a group of people living behind glass, tending to the crops and plants.
The results of the Biosphere 2 experiment – Biosphere 1 being the Earth itself – would tell us about humanity’s ability to colonise planets using such a dome, and help to rebalance our relationship with the natural world back here on B1. To the fascination of the world’s press, the Biospherians trooped inside the gleaming glass-and-steel structure in 1991, like astronauts getting on board a spaceship. Inevitably, relations between them frayed. The air quality started to deteriorate. And they had not anticipated what might happen if one of them needed hospital treatment.
Yet the real Lord of the Flies meltdown happened afterwards. As a result, Bass called in the Wall Street bankers to evict the hippies and the free-thinkers from the Biosphere management, as part of a mission to repurpose it as a profitably “environmentalist” tourist attraction.
The Biosphere 2 project now looks like reality TV, or maybe a conceptual art happening. Its quixotic extravagance is rather amazing.
• Spaceship Earth is available on digital platforms and in cinemas from 10 July.
Source: The Guardian