Spaceship Earth: Big Ideas Overshadow the Human Element
In 1991, eight men and women entered a vast futuristic structure in the southern Arizona desert, intending to live entirely self-contained and -sustained within that complex for the next two years. The project and the structure were known as Biosphere 2 (the first Biosphere being the Earth itself), an experiment in creating a fully sustainable ecosystem in which humans could survive by cultivating a variety of manufactured biomes within a closed environment — especially useful in the event of a natural or manmade climatological disaster. It was a project that ultimately intrigued and captivated the public, and in Spaceship Earth director Matt Wolf explores the history of Biosphere 2, providing a sympathetic look at its decades-long history and the minds behind the mission.
From a documentarian perspective, Wolf is fortunate to have gained access to a wide swath of members of the Biosphere 2 team — many of whom were part of the group prior to the project’s inception — including controversial founder John Allen. But as he paints a fairly rosy picture of the group as forward-thinking climate change advocates and activists, one does begin to wonder whether the prominence of the team as talking heads contributes to a less-nuanced analysis of their history, especially given the fact that some of the more eyebrow-raising (some might say cult-like) aspects of the group are given little airtime. However, as with many documentaries, sanitization may simply be part of the trade-off that comes with access, and the access here is impressive. Not only does the film feature commentary by those involved, but it relies heavily on archival footage from the Biosphere 2 team — footage shot both for research purposes and, in the case of early sections of the film, simply because one of the founding members happened to be an amateur videographer who enjoyed chronicling their lives.
Despite the footage at his disposal and the insight it provides, Wolf seems more intrigued by the ecological idealism than by the interpersonal relationships of those practicing it — sometimes to the film’s detriment as both entertainment and anthropological study. This is especially evident in the later portions of the film covering the Biosphere 2 mission itself. The project understandably garnered media attention and had the makings of tabloid fodder — regardless of the professionalism of the endeavor, in the end you have eight people living together with no other contact for two years. The potential interpersonal dynamics are fascinating: in theory, the project could have provided just as much insight into human behavior as into ecology. But despite the breadth of access, Wolf mostly glosses over this aspect, disappointingly — though perhaps understandably — choosing to focus on the bigger picture matters tied more directly to the film’s concept of the group as intrepid explorers, regrettably ahead of their time.
This wistful take does mean the film trends a little too much towards the hagiographic, which, combined with the leisurely pace doesn’t quite justify the nearly two hour runtime. But the film is ultimately buoyed by a gorgeous score by Owen Pallett and by the nature of the premise itself. At a moment where we all find ourselves more aware than ever of both our reliance on society and our impact on the natural world, it’s not too hard to empathize with the Biosphere 2 team — the prospect of a more sustainable ecosystem becomes more alluring every day, and while their work may not have been a full-throated success, one has to hope we continue to see more out-of-the-box thinkers like them in the coming years.