New intriguing documentary Spaceship Earth follows the ragtag group of freethinkers who became famous for the creation of Biosphere 2, a manmade vivarium in the middle of the desert meant to test whether humans could sustain life on another planet. Calling themselves the Synergists, the collective of scientists, theater nerds, and architects devoted years to planetary projects long before Biosphere 2 landed them in every news headline of the 90s.
Filmmaker Matt Wolf gathered the surviving members of the Synergists to shed light on the group's origins. Their efforts were pioneered by a man named John Allen, an Oklahoma native with a knack for bringing people together for a cause. Magnetic and charismatic, Allen recruited young people in the 1970s to join his commune. Unlike many other communes of the time, Allen and his comrades didn't engage in drugs — they had to keep their minds sharp because they had a higher goal. If you were to ask what exactly they were trying to do, the answer would simple: everything.
"We could do theater, we could do art, we could do business, we could do science," said original Synergist member Kathelin Gray in the documentary. "[we said] 'Let's do it all!'"
Funneling their resources together, the group purchased a few acres of land in New Mexico, calling it Synergia Ranch. The Synergists' first project was the Theater of All Possibilities, a theater that allowed them to put on special performances for the public. It was not coincidence that the theater was their debut; performance and acting would remain a core element of the collective's identity even as their focus shifted overwhelmingly towards sustainability.
At the ranch, the Synergists decided to try their hands at building a ship that would take them across the world. With construction efforts led by 19-year-old Margaret Augustine, the team built the Heraclitus, and the ship took them around the world.
The work of Synergia Ranch attracted the interest of Texas billionaire Ed Bass, who would strike a unique deal with Allen and the Synergists; he agreed to fund their special projects as long as they were profitable. As a result, the group took on large-scale global projects —erecting a hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal, opening an art gallery in London, clearing land in the Australian outback.
In 1981, Allen held a summit that gathered some of the greatest minds in science. The conference was aimed at exploring the history of Earth and the role of mankind in its future, and it led to the creation of Biosphere 2. The Synergists began meticulously building (with Bass's funds) a vivarium in Oracle, Arizona, complete with plant life and animals from various biomes around the world. Allen and his team chose eight Biospherians to occupy Biosphere 2, physicians, marine biologists, and ecologist among them.
The two-year mission launched in 1991, and with the exception of a medical emergency, the Biospherians stayed inside of the vivarium with no interference from the outside world. Many scientists were not convinced by the Synergists' hypothesis that Biosphere 2 was proof that humans could survive on hostile planets like Mars, and the data collected from the experiment wasn't enough to sway public opinion that the Biosphere was just "ecological entertainment."
After the mission ended in 1993, federal marshals locked down the facility and prevented the Synergists from entering it. Bass had severed his partnership with Allen, and he hired Steve Bannon — who would later become President Trump's controversial White House Chief Strategist — to serve as the president of Space Biospheres Ventures. It didn't take long for the company to crumble under Bannon's watch; in 1995, Columbia University acquired Biosphere 2 for research purposes. It is currently owned by the University of Arizona.
Even though Biosphere 2 is not widely considered a success, the Synergists are proud of the work that they've done as a collective. The experiment, they say, taught them about how influential humans can be on the earth. Biosphere 2 and their other lesser-known projects inspired them to work as a collective to do good for the planet.
"Sometimes beautiful things happen when people bring their minds toward a common goal," said Biospherian Linda Leigh. "You can't do it all by yourself."
Spaceship Earth is now streaming across platforms.