Review: Spaceship Earth Recounts the Fascination and Science Fiction of Biosphere 2

As a kid growing up obsessed with space travel and even the faintest possibility of humans living on the moon or Mars, I have a vague recollection of the two-year quarantine experiment that began in 1991 known as Biosphere 2 (named as such because the earth itself was considered Biosphere 1). In theory, the live-in bio-lab was meant to investigate the probability that humans could coexist in closed quarters while also doing dozens of experiments involving plant and animal life under the same conditions. The habitat had a living coral reef, a desert, a rainforest, fields to grow crops, and an array of animals to simulate an earth-like ecosystem (with a pinch of Noah’s Ark thrown in). And the troubles started almost as soon as the door to the outside world was shut.

Spaceship Earth

Image courtesy of Neon

For the new documentary Spaceship Earth, director Matt Wolf (Wild Combination) combines an array of archival news footage, home movies from inside the Biosphere 2, and interviews with most of the major players—many of whom are not only still alive but still living together in a commune-like farm. The idea for Biosphere 2 goes back to the 1960s and a group of like-minded individuals who decided to live together with everyone in charge of some aspect of their communal living. Admittedly, they were more like a collection of theater nerds living together, which sounds as bad as it looks. But one of the founding members, John Allen, became the de facto leader and, at least initially, he seemed to have a clear idea of the direction the group should head in. After the group successfully constructs a rather large boat, the idea of a self-contained living space began to take root. With funding from oil tycoon heir Ed Bass, the ecosystem was both a reaction to the way the earth’s environmental situation was taking shape and the next logical step in the evolution of space travel.

With as much an emphasis on creative expression as on science and data, Biosphere 2 began with a great deal of fanfare, news coverage, and high expectations. The idea is that nothing from the outside world would interfere or be introduced into the closed environment for two years. But with so many eyes on the project and a less than steady stream of transparent information coming from the project leaders, questions began to arise about the authenticity of the experiment. When one “bionaut” has to leave the structure for a brief time for surgery to repair an injured finger, she brought back in with her two duffle bags of supplies. At another point, it became clear that the CO2 levels inside were dangerously high, resulting in oxygen being pumped into the space and thus fully violating the parameters of the work.

News agencies looking for a fresh angle on this questionable group began to investigate the origins of the group and Allen, some calling him a cult leader, which only made him angry and paranoid. In-fighting erupted inside and outside the dome, and by the time the experiment was concluded, it had become something of an indulgent joke rather than a serious research-oriented event. The findings were locked away, and most of the original leadership were fired by Bass, who brought in Steve Bannon to take over the project (yes, THAT Steve Bannon).

In many ways, the experiment’s greatest achievement was less about the natural sciences and more about the sociological revelations about how people either cooperate or bounce off against each other when they are trapped together. At a certain point, everyone inside was tired and hungry, and tensions were high; during better times, the community was buzzing with efficiency and cooperation. Compared to the footage from the early 1990s, the newer interviews aren’t especially revealing or interesting. The footage inside Biodome 2 is exceptional and quite impressive, especially in the experiment’s darker days. The film of cockroaches and ants invading certain corners of the structure is horrifying. The film has much to say about the excesses that some were allowed to take part in just because they had financial backing, and how quickly those backers would turn on the participants when they were made to look foolish.

Spaceship Earth is a fascinating look at what big dreamers have to cope with in order to see their ideas realized and the price they sometimes pay when the world is watching. With its matching uniforms and vaguely science-fiction ideas, Biodome 2 was easy to laugh at when things started to fall apart, but this film is the story of those who weren’t laughing, making it as heartbreaking as it is entertaining.

The film will play theatrically in participating drive-ins nationwide, and select pop-up city-scape projections (safely accessible by quarantined city dwellers). In addition, distributor NEON has made a special arrangement with exhibitors to launch the film on theater websites plus websites of other affected businesses interested in participating. Current confirmed distribution partners include film festivals, museums and first-time film purveyors like bookstores, restaurants and more. The footprint is rounded out by a simultaneous digital launch on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow, Vudu, DIRECTV, DISH and Hulu.

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