Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Someone sent me an instragram message saying, ‘Have you heard about this?’
In 1991, eight people became part of a living ecological experiment. They sealed themselves inside a giant terrarium, dubbed ‘Biosphere 2’, where they would live in a closed environment for two years. During this period they would need to generate their own food, and manage the sphere’s atmosphere and water resources, to make sure they stayed alive.
It was an ambitious, daydreamy project, meant to test how humans could set up future spacebases on the Moon and Mars; so while it is a surprise to learn in this documentary that the people behind Biosphere 2 were hippies who lived on a commune, it is not all that surprising. The whole thing radiates with the wide eyed idealism that characterised the summer of love.
John Allen was a former engineer who caught the 1960s counter culture bug. He connected with like minded individuals in California, and together they built a ramshackle empire; constructing a ranch, and a large sailing boat, and founding alternative business all over the world. They were like a better organised and funded version of ‘The Merry Pranksters’.
The cash came from Ed Bass, heir to a multi billion dollar oil fortune; he and Allen became friends, and he funded the group’s projects, some of which even turned a profit. Bass was a space enthusiast, and when Allen pitched the idea of researching deep space exploration, Bass was happy to invest. He would eventually cough up $150 million dollars to build the biosphere in the Nevada desert.
But Allen and his co-organisers were not scientists, and the project quickly ran into trouble. There were not enough plants inside to generate the required oxygen to sustain 8 people, and as the atmosphere turned toxic, the crops began to fail. Starving, and mildly CO2 poisoned, the biospherians received outside help in the form of replenished oxygen supplies, which caused a PR disaster. The project was written off as a sham by both the scientific community and the media, and Bass eventually had Allen removed from the project by the local sheriff.
I can still remember Biosphere 2 from when I was a kid, and what a huge story it was in its day. Looking back from this distance, the idea to create a mini earth environment and then study how humans impact it seems like a good one; and Biosphere 2 is today run by the University of Arizona and used for environmental science.
But this film is less about the project, and more about the personalities behind it. It is a callback to a different time, not just the 1960s but also the 1990s, a time when a bunch of nobody’s from the desert could get a multi-million dollar project off the ground, in a way you think would not happen now.
It is a very American story, and harks back to the old idea of the US as a place for dreamers and visionaries, where anything is possible. This story is not that different to the Apollo program that put someone on the Moon (albeit a less successful version); another expensive project that encapsulated a more optimistic time. Watching NASA try and get a new lunar programme up, on the cheap and mostly paid for by Elon Musk, highlights the difference between the two eras.
An engaging film. The first half, charting the rise of the ‘Synergists’, is more entertaining, and it becomes a little sad as they move towards the Biosphere, which you know will end in ignominy and embarrassment. Another story about people who got a little too close to the sun.