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VOD Review: Spaceship Earth

May 8, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

In 1991, a group of eight men and women locked themselves inside Biosphere 2, a massive indoor recreation of the earth’s ecosystem built in the middle of the Arizona desert. The plan was to stay there for two years with no interference from the outside world, growing their own food and doing everything for themselves, in an unprecedented experiment in self-sufficiency.

Filmmaker Matt Wolf explores the history behind Biosphere 2 in his new documentary Spaceship Earth, compiling a series of interviews with several of the remaining participants, who recount the story in their own words, backed up by a wealth of archival footage from before and during the experiment.

The participants were mainly followers of a man named John P. Allen who had stayed with him at his New Mexico property, Synergia Ranch, which was essentially a commune for like-minded individuals. Born out of the hippie movement, their world views were shaped by a variety of influences, from French writer René Daumal’s novel Mount Analogue and the work of author William S. Burroughs, to Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 science fiction film Silent Running, which provided some of the clearest seeds of inspiration for Biosphere 2.

Built by Allen, who had previously facilitated projects such as amateur theatre productions and even the building of a fully operational ship, with the help of a sizeable investment from businessman Ed Bass, Biosphere 2 attracted incredible media attention in the early 1990s. We are treated to news footage of the swarms of onlookers who showed up for the “sealing in” ceremony, as well as the tourists who came to peer at the participants inside, like humans in a zoo. But this media frenzy turned into increasing scrutiny when it started to become apparent that the experiment wasn’t quite what it seemed.

The enclosed, dome-like structure was meant to symbolize how we can share our natural resources and live in harmony with nature in the face of impending environmental catastrophe, while also serving as a simulation for the sort of community that could be built to colonize other planets, including Mars. But was the experiment science or “trendy ecological entertainment,” as former Biosphere 2 scientist David Stumpf calls it at one point in the film? Wolf doesn’t really answer this question in Spaceship Earth, but we are given just enough information to ponder it for ourselves.

Biosphere 2 would later be bought out by an investment banker by the name of Steve Bannon, who tried to turn it into a commercial property. Bannon’s appearance in the film came as a surprise to me, and is almost treated as an aside, but it’s something I wish had been given more time and attention considering how influential Bannon would become, effectively getting Trump elected. The film also runs long at close to two hours, with a bit too much time spent focusing on the lead up to Biosphere 2 in the first half, as past participants heap praise on John Allen in a way that gives credence to charges that he functioned like a cult leader.

The film’s basic structure of talking head interviews and old footage also isn’t quite as inventive as this material maybe deserves, and Wolf doesn’t go as deep into the ethical and psychological implications of the experiment as I would have liked, without much in the way of scrutiny beyond old news clips. But Spaceship Earth still provides an interesting overview of this unprecedented human experiment that captured public attention nearly thirty years ago and has now been mostly forgotten.

The documentary raises several important and still somewhat unanswered questions about whether Biosphere 2 represented a sincere scientific endeavour, a sensationalized precursor to reality television, or a glorified cult gathering, and viewers are left to come to their own constantly changing conclusions while watching it.

Spaceship Earth is now available for rent and purchase on a variety of digital and VOD platforms.

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