Recommendation: While it couldn’t be more timely of subject matter and it’s an illuminating look at a near-cult eco group, the film never reaches a crescendo to drive home it’s central message. 6.5/10
IMDB Synopsis: A look at the group of people who built the Biosphere 2, a giant replica of the earth’s ecosystem, in 1991.
In 1991, before there was a global spotlight—and divisive debate—on climate change, a group of so-called ecologists and assorted scientists voluntarily isolated themselves for two years in an ecological closed system called Biosphere 2. Led by the charismatic yet culty leader John Allen, the idea was to study the effects of a truly closed system as a blueprint for humanity to create future biospheres. The world watched rapturously as the audacious project began. But what should have been the scientific icing on the cake of a 25-year journey by Allen’s group, instead was bogged with scientific dubiousness and mired by corporate greed. Spaceship Earth is the visual retelling of the run-up, execution, and fallout from the ambitious project.
Twenty five years prior was the formation of John Allen’s band of hippies and thinkers, director Matt Wolf portrays the group as the free spirits that were determined to make a change in the world. Building a sustainable ranch, performing a as a traveling theater troupe, and holding intellectual climate conferences, the group was an embodiment of the idea, “if you can think it, you can do it.” Yet as the group scaled up their projects, it’s clear that their free thinking ideals were at odds with the need to pay for this lifestyle. There could be no purely ecological and morally righteous initiatives, as the group’s need for hefty capital tinged their work. The film chooses to focus on the group’s can-do attitude and gusto rather than the scientifically dubious and capitalistic underwriting of the group, which is ultimately more hopeful.
The biosphere itself (dubbed “2” because the Earth is the original) is an astounding piece of engineering. Designed to be a closed system with handpicked plants, animals, and crops from around the globe, included various climates like jungle, desert, and even ocean with a coral reef. Inside, the handpicked eight “Biospherians” would live, cultivate, and study the effects of a closed ecological system. Armed with pure scientific altruism and a lot of hard work, the Biospherians really set themselves to the task of cultivating and studying this new world. But while the project was touted as a closed system, the project engineers surreptitiously added a CO2 scrubber and pumped in oxygen. After the initial media frenzy and enthusiasm for the project faded, the doubt cast by the scientific community overshadowed the project. And as the PR troubles mounted on outside, on the inside, the Biospherians struggled with starvation, mental fortitude, and dangerously rising CO2 levels.
The goal was completely altruistic: To learn about closed ecosystems on a lived-in scale and to help determine changes that would be needed for Biosphere 3 and any ventures beyond. However, at a reported cost of $200 million to build, the project’s corporate elements had different ideas. Led by Allen’s business partner and oil magnate Ed Bass (and special modern day villain cameo), as soon as the two years were over the project was stripped for parts and the valuable data lost or locked away. In the end, the film is as much an ecological exploration (hope) as it is a cautionary tale on capitalism (cynicism).
The thirst for knowledge to combat the global ills, from climate change to world hunger to even the recent pandemic, shows the relevancy of Spaceship Earth despite the contents occurring nearly 30 years ago. We live in a closed system and every action has an effect. And despite the scientific dubiousness of the project or the VC backers, the group showed that with genuine determination, that a group of humans can achieve anything. And that’s a message worth spreading in 2020.
Highlights: The biosphere itself, is a gorgeous piece of architecture. The footage from 1967 onward is incredible in telling a full narrative about the group.
Director: Matt Wolf
Studio: Neon // Release date: May 8, 2020