Reviews

Spaceship Earth (documentary) ★★★

Biosphere 2 was the first, very public attempt to create a self-sufficient ecosystem in an enclosed space. Taking up only three acres, Biosphere 2 was meant to pioneer how humans could live on planets hostile to human life. The original team intended to live in the closed system for two years without any sort of outside aid. 

The reason for the naming of Biosphere 2, despite being the first of its kind (the first biosphere was supposed to be the Earth itself), says a lot about the people behind the ambitious experiment. Such a name could speak to either a boundless, admirable idealism or an unhealthy hubris. Indeed, if you look at the people behind Biosphere 2, it could have been easy to tell this story from either extreme.

The first part of Spaceship Earth focuses on the members of the Synergia Ranch, a countercultural commune that would embark on grand quests such as building a huge, seaworthy ship. The Synergists’ story would be familiar to anyone knowledgeable about this era when such communes were a dime a dozen. The telltale markers are all there: the idealism, the unconventional practices, and the cult of personality – in this case, the personality is the charismatic John P. Allen, who convinced many members of the commune just by affirming their passions and encouraging their dreams. Yet the Synergists are different from other countercultural groups in that they were quite open about their need to make money in order to fund their quixotic projects. To this effect, they would often be indistinguishable from other businessmen and women in the way they dressed and acted. Many of the Synergists’ projects, including Biosphere 2, would have not been possible without the generosity of people such as billionaire Ed Bass, an heir to an oil fortune.

Indeed, the subject of Spaceship Earth is this confluence of idealism and capitalism, which director Matt Wolf clearly favors over the sensationalism of this story. Most directors would have focused on the eventual debacle that the first Biosphere experiment was as well as the media fallout for all of those concerned. Yet Spaceship Earth has a much more balanced view of the experiment that  does not offer explicit commentary on how events unfold. Instead, we get a sense of how the media can blow  a story out of proportion and how it can feed into even the most modest of egos. At first, the Synergists had welcomed the media attention because they thought it would attract tourists who could help pay back an already enormous investment (which it ultimately didn’t). Predictably, they find the media attention backfiring when Biosphere 2 starts malfunctioning: the carbon dioxide level becomes too high and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the biosphere with morale low and many of the plants and animals dying.

Spending significant time with the members of the Synergists for the first half of the documentary pays off because we get a fuller sense of the story behind Biosphere 2 when things start to go  wrong. Instead of coming off as con men and women, we see people who are clinging onto their ideals in the face of obvious disasters and mass scrutiny. More importantly, we see people who are willing to learn from their mistakes like true scientists and scholars. Indeed, the second attempt at Biosphere 2 was quite successful, but outside forces caused the project to shut down indefinitely with the the help of a surprise villain (the closest this film gets to any sort of artificial excitement, and that’s mostly because of how prominent this figure has been in recent American history). While Spaceship Earth lacks some of the sensationalism of other documentaries with this much potential for scandalous revelations, its evenhanded portrayal of its subject is quite refreshing and entertainingly informative.

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