Review: ‘Spaceship Earth,’ starring John Allen, Marie Harding, Kathelin Gray, Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, Tony Burgess and Sally Silverstone

May 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Biosphere 2 dwellers in “Spaceship Earth.” Pictured from left to right: Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, Sally Silverstone and Bernd Zabel posing inside (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Spaceship Earth”

Directed by Matt Wolf

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Arizona and California, the documentary “Spaceship Earth” has an all-white cast of people who are interviewed about their involvement in the environmental experiment Biosphere 2, where eight people lived in a giant sealed dome from 1991 to 1993.

Culture Clash: The Biosphere 2 principals and participants were accused of being cult members and frauds by several legitimate members of the scientific community.

Culture Audience: “Spaceship Earth” will appeal mostly to viewers who have an interest in documentaries about eccentric people or futuristic ideas about how to sustain Earth’s environment.

Biosphere 2 in “Spaceship Earth” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

The documentary “Spaceship Earth” isn’t actually about a ship in outer space. It’s about a well-publicized, non-scientific experiment where eight people volunteered to live in an elaborate, sealed bio-dome called Biosphere 2 covering 2.5 acres in Tucson, Arizona, from 1991 to 1993. The idea was that Biosphere 2 could be a prototype for humans to have colonies in outer space. This bio-dome was called Biosphere 2 because the group considered Earth to be Biosphere 1. Although this documentary (directed by Matt Wolf) is certainly fascinating, it raises some questions that aren’t really answered in the film.

The first half of this two-hour movie is an extensive history of the group of eccentrics (who were hippies in the 1960s) that launched Biosphere 2 with the help of Texas billionaire Ed Bass. The group’s leader is John Allen (also known as Johnny Dolphin), a former member of the U.S. Army and a graduate of Harvard Business School. Allen was much older than the mostly young people in their late teens to 20s whom he recruited to join an experimental performing arts group in the late 1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco. The group would call itself the Theater of All Possibilities and would perform around the world.

Allen and several of the group members are interviewed in the documentary, including Marie Harding, also known as Flash, who would become Allen’s wife and chief financial administrator; Kathelin Gray, also known as Salty; William Dempster, also known as Freddy; and Mark Nelson, also known as Horse Shit. They all “dropped out” of their conventional lives to live in a commune and follow the leadership of Allen. All of this sounds like a cult, but the group members deny that they are a cult.

Unfortunately, the “Spaceship Earth” documentary doesn’t interview anyone with a more objective perspective of what this group was about, since everyone interviewed in the movie has been in the group for years or benefited financially from the Biodome 2 spectacle when it launched in the early 1990s. The only real voice of skepticism in the documentary is archival 1990s TV footage of an interview given by whistleblower David Stumpf, a former Biosphere 2 scientist, who said that Biosphere 2 was a scientific fraud and that it was just “trendy ecological entertainment.”

By 1969, the group was fed up with the commercialism of the San Francisco hippie scene and moved to New Mexico to live at a place called Synergia Ranch. It was at this ranch, where the commune members grew their own food and had a self-contained sustainable lifestyle, that Allen started to delve more into the idea of building an enclosed biosphere environment where humans could live. They funded their lifestyle by starting different businesses and doing performances.

The Synergia Ranch group was inspired by several books, including Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth,” the Whole Earth catalog and the works of William S. Burroughs. Even though the Theater of All Possibilities group lived a counterculture, hippie lifestyle, Gray says that the group “didn’t take drugs, which would kind of blow it.” It’s very hard to believe that statement, considering much of the group’s performances (shown in archival footage) look a lot like people whacked-out on psychedelics drugs.

Whether they used drugs or not, this group certainly had an unusual mindset that worshipped Allen. Nelson was a native of Brooklyn, New York, who had drifted from job to job before joining the group at the Synergia Ranch in 1969. Nelson says in the documentary that he was a taxi driver, a proofreader, a court reporter and a social worker before leaving New York for the alternative lifestyle offered by Allen and the group. “I really was looking for something different,” Nelson says.

Nelson, Gray and other members of the group talk about Allen being a brilliant visionary, with the word “genius” used quite a bit to describe him. Nelson says Allen is like “a father figure” to him and that Allen is “charismatic,” “tempestuous” and a “genius.” Gray gushes, “I met geniuses before, but no one like John Allen.” Gray hints that she was in love with Allen too, but is purposely vague in saying how intimate she got with him.

Allen’s wife Harding, who said she was never the marrying kind, explains why she agreed to marry him: “It wasn’t for the normal married life type of thing. We were married to make a project.” In other words, their relationship is more of a business arrangement than a traditional marriage.

By 1974, the group members relocated back to California, this time to Berkeley, with the ambition to build a giant Noah’s Ark-inspired ocean ship in nearby Oakland. They succeeded in that goal, and named the ship the Heraclitus. They sailed around the world in the ship and used their construction skills to get jobs by helping construct various buildings.

The group’s adventures in the Heraclitus planted the idea of building a sealed colony that could possibly be used in outer space. In the documentary, many of the group members talk about wanting to “make history” and being at the forefront of futuristic living. One of the key members of the group was Margaret Augustine (also known as Firefly), who started out in the group as a 19-year-old neophyte with no construction work experience and ended up as a chief architect of many of the group’s projects.

It was in the 1970s that the group found an enthusiastic supporter in billionaire Bass, who wanted the group to go to different areas and improve the land. Bass (who is not interviewed in the documentary) is described as someone who was a rebel from a conservative family and is obsessed as the group is about futuristic living. Gray comments about Bass, “He really liked the sense of exploration and adventure.”

Having a wealthy benefactor gave the group more clout, and they began hosting conferences with international intellectuals and “forward thinkers.” Allen is quick to take credit for these conferences being among the first to introduce to the public the concepts of global warming and climate change.

Phil Hawes, a sustainable architect who frequently spoke at these conferences, is credited by the group for coming up with the idea of an adobe spaceship that could be a colony for humans in outer space. Another big influence on the Biosphere project was the 1972 movie “Silent Running,” starring Bruce Dern as a scientist who makes a greenhouse in a space station after all plant life on Earth has been destroyed.

The documentary gets a lot more interesting in the second half, which details the construction, launch and controversy of Biosphere 2. For the massive undertaking of Biosphere 2, which was largely funded by Bass, several scientific consultants were used, including those from the University of Arizona, the Smithsonian Marine Systems Lab and the New York Botanical Garden.

Augustine was Biosphere 2’s chief executive officer, while Harding was the chief financial officer. Harding says that it took most of the ’80s to build Biosphere 2, and it cost $200 million back then. Tony Burgess, a desert ecologist, was recruited to design Biosphere 2’s desert. About 3,800 species of plant and animal life were brought into the dome. The idea was that Biosphere 2 would be completely sustainable on its own, with nothing from the outside to assist for the two years that the people would stay in the dome.

And then by 1990, there was the massive search to find volunteers who were willing to live in Biosphere 2 and not come out for two years. Allen said that he wanted to select “free thinkers,” not followers. There’s archival footage of the auditions, which basically look like Allen telling people to do weird performance antics and exercises. The dwellers could still communicate with the outside world by telephone and videoconferencing, but Allen would be the one to decide who could talk to the dwellers and vice versa. That kind of extreme control by one person doesn’t exactly sound like an atmosphere conducive to “free thinking.”

In the end, eight people were chosen to be the Biosphere 2 dwellers: Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Abigail Alling, Bernd Zabe, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Roy Walford and Sally Silverstone. MacCallum and Poynter were a couple, and so were Zabe and Alling. The documentary doesn’t mention if any of the Biosphere 2 dwellers had children.

Although all the Biodome 2 dwellers worked together in communal duties to maintain the space while living there, most of them had a particular specialty. Poynter was in charge of the agriculture and animals. MacCallum did a lot testing of the atmosphere and soil. Alling was the resident marine biologist. Zabe was the repairman. Walford, the oldest member (he was in his early 60s at the time), was the physician. Silverstone was the main cook, and she says in the documentary that only natural ingredients were used in the Biosphere 2 food.

Leigh remembers what she thought of being part of this select group of Biosphere 2 dwellers: “This is a great, bright group of people that are really into what they’re doing … They’re wacky, and I fit right in.” Silverstone says, “I loved science-fiction movies where people were all living under glass domes.” In other words, Biosphere 2 was a dream come true for her. Silverstone later says in the documentary that after the two-year isolation period was over, she didn’t want to leave Biosphere 2 and that she would’ve lived there as long as she could if she were allowed to do it.

The day that the eight Biosphere 2 dwellers entered the dome was met with great fanfare and media attention from all over the world. The documentary has interviews with two of the people who were part of the publicity campaign: Kathy Dyhr, who was Biosphere 2’s public relations director, and public-relations strategist Larry Winokur, who was brought on board because, as Dyhr says in the documentary, she didn’t really know what she was doing and they needed someone with more professional PR experience.

The fact that all of the people chosen to live in Biosphere 2 were white and from Western countries (most from the United States, a few from European nations) probably wouldn’t be considered acceptable today in a more diverse-conscious society. When the Biosphere 2 project decided to raise money by opening up a visiting area, so visitors could look in the dome like people look at a fish bowl, some African Americans are shown in archival footage commenting on the lack of racial diversity of the people in the dome.

But that was just one criticism in a growing list of skeptical observations. Many scientists said it would be inaccurate for Biosphere 2 to be considered real scientific research, since it was an experiment that wasn’t going to be duplicated to double-check results, and there were too many unknown variables.

Things got even more controversial after Poynter accidentally got the tip of one of her fingers cut off in a grain threshing machine, and she had to go outside the dome to get medical attention. Having someone leave Biosphere 2 before the end of the two-year period automatically invalidated the highly touted main goal of the experience: that all eight dwellers would not leave Biosphere 2 for two years.

And then it was discovered by the media that when Poynter returned to Biosphere 2 after getting medical treatment, she broke another rule, by bringing in two duffel bags of outside supplies. And with another goal destroyed, tensions and conflicts grew inside and outside Biosphere 2.

The atmosphere in Biosphere 2 began to have dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide, so oxygen had to be pumped into the dome. It was another failure in the Biosphere 2 goal of not bringing in anything from the outside during the two-year period. According to Dyhr, as the media began to have more questions about the validity of the experiment, “Margaret [Harding] and John [Allen] became more secretive, and that reinforced the idea that they had something to hide.”

And criticism began to grow about the control that Allen (who’s not a scientist) had over the group, which further fueled accusations that the group is a cult. Desert ecologist Burgess tells a story about being threatened and terrified by Allen, after Burgess was accused of being disloyal for expressing his concerns  to the media.

Burgess and Allen later put asides their differences, and in the documentary, Burgess is quick to defend the group: “Frankly, I don’t know any organization that does an innovative start-up that doesn’t have cult-like aspects, especially in the corporate sector. We are hard-wired to create cults in the innovative phase of an organization.”

And then things really began to fall apart when more scientists quit the project and billionaire Bass, the group’s chief investor, got disillusioned. And then, Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon, the same one who later became famous for founding Breitbart News and being Donald Trump’s political adviser) got involved in the whole mess. Although the end results of Biosphere 2 have been widely reported and are in the documentary, that spoiler information won’t be included in this review.

After the controversy, this is what Allen has to say about Biosphere 2 all these years later: “We were people who recognized that climate change is a threat and tried to develop the means to counteract that threat.”

Because Allen and his group control so much of the narrative in this documentary, director Wolf fails to answer some basic questions. For starters, did any of the people in this commune group have children? There’s absolutely no mention of any of these people being parents, and how raising kids affected what they did for the group and for Biosphere 2. This is a documentary about a group of people obsessed with how future generations are going to live on Earth and possibly outer space, so it’s very strange for this documentary not to include information about if these people have any children.

Another glaring omission is that the documentary doesn’t have interviews with any scientists who weren’t on the Biosphere 2 payroll, in order to get more objective observations. Instead of spending a lot of time covering the history of this commune group, that screen time in the film should have been for putting into context what, if any, effects that Biosphere 2 had on today’s scientific plans or theories about environmental issues.

Although the documentary makes it clear that there were many scientist critics of Biosphere 2, the filmmakers never bothered to interview any of them for this documentary. It would have been a welcome balance to the obviously biased gushing about Biosphere 2 from Allen’s group members. It would’ve been more interesting to get further details over why so many scientists quit the project. Surely, some of them are still alive to interview, but the documentary doesn’t answer those questions.

It also would’ve been interesting to get Allen’s response to all the criticisms that he was a bully who ran a cult and why his group seems to be lacking in diversity, in terms of age and race. Allen’s group seems to be a bunch of old, white former hippies. If this group is so great at “forward thinking,” where is this group’s next generation of members? They’re certainly not in this documentary.

These are questions that “Spaceship Earth” fails to answer, much like a lot of the mythology around Biosphere 2. It seems as if Allen has control over not just his group of followers but he also exerted a lot of control, directly or indirectly, in how this documentary was made. “Spaceship Earth” leaves viewers with the impression that the filmmakers could’ve dug deeper for more information, but chose not to do it because they didn’t want to lose Allen and his flock to provide the documentary’s majority of interviews and archival footage.

Neon released “Spaceship Earth” in select U.S. drive-in theaters, pop-up city-scape projections, virtual cinemas, on digital and on Hulu on May 8, 2020.