On loving Bio-Dome and learning about Spaceship Earth | Movie Feature | Chicago Reader

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On loving Bio-Dome and learning about Spaceship Earth

How the 90s flop and 2020 documentary reference our current bubble life

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I’ve watched Bio-Dome at least 12 times. And naturally, during these turbulent times, I’ve picked up Bud (Pauly Shore) and Doyle’s (Stephen Baldwin) habit. So here I sit, tuning in for my 13th time with my weed pen, ready to catch up with my two favorite stoners.

Bio-Dome has a 4 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. For those of you who haven’t watched it (or who have Eternal-Sunshined it from your memory), the plot is this: Looking for a place to pee, Bud and Doyle find themselves in a shopping mall, aka a “biodome,” an environment created by five scientists who have decided to be hermetically sealed inside for one year living on unspoiled land. Of course, within weeks the ecological paradise is ruined, and the two numbnuts that are Bud and Doyle are taught the tragic consequences of the biodome’s destruction.

Kylie Minogue (who has said being in this film was the biggest mistake of her career), Patricia Hearst, Rose McGowan, and Tenacious D (performing as the band for the first time) all make cameo appearances in the stoner flick. Shore won a Golden Raspberry for Worst Lead Actor. It was a career flop.

In case you weren’t aware, this halfwit-classic has some truth to it. Biosphere 2 was a real experiment conducted in 1991—eight men and women lived inside of a human-made bubble in the Arizona desert for two years. These scientists and doctors lived in a constructed environment in which the outside world could have no interference. While researching this, I stumbled upon the documentary Spaceship Earth, just released in April. The film looks at the media-declared disaster of Biosphere 2 and how it is, in fact, so much more than the basis of a Pauly Shore comedy. Both films think about living in a bubble, not unlike our pandemic bubble. In low times during quarantine, I’ve become claustrophobic. There’s nowhere for us to escape but space. People have joked about begging the aliens to come pick us up. Anywhere but here! I’ve daydreamed about nature, about bugs, about anything that isn’t a concrete jungle. The real Biosphere 2 built its massive bubble and ecological system for research on how to maintain human life in outer space like the Moon or Mars. Watching Spaceship Earth makes it seem like they are living a dream.

I’ve talked to many folks in metropolitan areas who are yearning for nature. From my couch on the south side, living in the Biosphere 2 bubble doesn’t seem so bad. With access to a rainforest, an ocean with coral reefs, wetlands, and so much more, this group of scientists was able to engage with nature in an uninterrupted way. The area in which the scientists lived included animals, too: Pygmy goats, 35 hens, two sows, a dwarf pig, horses, and tilapia fish were all living amongst the biospherians.

Biosphere 2, like Bio-Dome, would be announced as a failure by the media. Biospherians ran into issues like low oxygen, plant die-off, and group tensions. Psychologists have looked at isolation among humans and called it “confined environment psychology,” where people unravel as groups and as friends. Psychological problems also arise for groups in insolation. Many of the biospherians believed they were depressed, others had short tempers, and everyday tasks became physically exhausting. Sound familiar? Jane Poynter, a researcher, celebrated her 30th birthday in the bubble, just as I’ve seen many of my friends do while in quarantine. She told The Huffington Post, "The first thing that happens [when leaving the bubble] is I’m dying to see all my friends and family, and I run over and I give them a big hug. And then I pull away in disgust because we all stink out here. We stink of chemicals.” Is this how I’m gonna feel the first time I mosey into Bob Inn to meet up with my Reader coworkers? Will the smell of beer and pizza hit me like a brick wall?

The film Spaceship Earth is about so much more than the bubble they built—they also built a massive ship, and the participants still live in New Mexico on a ranch. It’s a romantic telling of a group of people looking to connect to the natural world. But with all of the good is also the bad. Spaceship Earth is a stark reminder of colonization. These folks, though they are gentle and charismatic, were originally part of the larger plan to colonize space. While watching the film, I was so enthralled by their courage, by their similarity to our smaller bubbles, that I almost ignored the clear issues with the documentary. Colonizing space will always be a desire for humans. We can’t stand the fact that an entire galaxy exists as we turn on the lonely, and dying, planet Earth. But if there are any aliens out there, they sure as hell aren’t coming to pay us a visit any time soon.

Bio-Dome piggybacked on the media’s jokes about the biospherians and their failures. It made this scientific experiment a laughing matter, and many folks my age don’t even know that the Biosphere 2 existed. So, in short, if you want to watch a film on cultlike scientific experiments relating to nature, space, and ecology, watch Spaceship Earth on Hulu. If you want to watch something that requires you to smoke a shit ton of weed and gawk at career mishaps, watch Bio-Dome. If neither sounds appealing, I watched both so you don’t have to.

When the quarantine eventually lifts, I may be a little bit biospherian and a little bit Pauly Shore. All knucklehead, a little bit of brains, and happily riding out my isolation.   v

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