‘Spaceship Earth’: Film Review

A somewhat disgraced grand scientific experiment of the early 1990s is rehabilitated in Matt Wolf's lovely, engrossing documentary flashback.

John Allen, Tony Burgess, Freddy Dempster, Kathy Dyhr, Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Larry Winokour.

Running time: 114 MIN.

The experiment known as Biosphere 2 may be best remembered now — when remembered at all — as something that spawned “Bio-Dome,” the godawful 1996 comedy that is nonetheless many people’s favorite movie involving Pauly Shore or Stephen Baldwin. (Of course, others might get hives at the very idea of having a favorite anything involving either of those two.) Its very loose real-life inspiration also had elements of bad farce, at least in the realm of unflattering media scrutiny and, to an extent, poor judgment by its administrators.

Yet “Spaceship Earth” reclaims Biosphere 2 — thus named to remind us that Numero Uno is fragile Earth itself — from the pop-culture-footnote dustbin, capturing the spirit of genuine idealism and earnest scientific inquiry with which it was launched. This unexpectedly lovely documentary from Matt Wolf (“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”) duly chronicles the two-year period in which eight carefully vetted experts shared a vast, airtight Arizona desert vivarium meant to be entirely self-sustaining, a sort of dry run for a projected future of such human habitats in outer space.

But the film’s larger frame is something more spiritual, an innate quest for knowledge and adventure whose principal crime was naiveté. Operating outside the usual government and academic realms for such projects, the Biosphere 2 personnel weren’t prepared for the extent to which they’d be scrutinized and dismissed for that independence. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials as well as interviews with all surviving participants, “Spaceship” is an involving, oddly poignant tale that should have broad appeal to those on the lookout for distinctive documentary features.

Popular on Variety

After a brief teaser of 1991’s publicity hullabaloo surrounding the “prefab paradise” itself, we rewind a quarter century, when several key players first met amid San Francisco’s peak ’60s counterculture. Many were magnetized by the somewhat older John Allen, an Okie child of the Great Depression whose restless life encompassed a Harvard degree, factory work and much global travel, for starters.

His accumulated expertise in ecology and art led to the creation of a commune in S.F. (where he co-founded the long-running performance troupe Theater of All Possibilities), though it soon moved to start the still-extant Synergia Ranch in New Mexico. Hardly exemplars of laid-back hippiedom, its residents were endlessly innovative and industrious, starting other long-term ventures abroad, touring that theater company, even building their own ocean-ready sailing vessel from scratch. But prescient thinking about Earth’s escalating climatic changes (as well as the 1972 sci-fi movie “Silent Running”) ultimately generated their most grandiose project.

Built over several years’ course and funded largely by progressive Texas billionaire Ed Bass, Biosphere 2 aimed to test the technical, agricultural, psychological and other bounds of a permanent living enclosure like one humankind might one day exist in on the moon or Mars. The three-acre structure of metal and glass was intended to generate all its own air, water and food, with livestock and crops as well as seven “biomes” (including a miniature rainforest and an “ocean” with a coral reef). The octet of humans winnowed down NASA-style from a pool of trainees were each authorities in various relevant fields.

The precise point of B2 was not to flawlessly approximate a successful space colony but to detect failure points that could then be avoided when that thing became a reality. But this wasn’t NASA, or even a university-funded operation. Despite the great level of expertise (and expense) involved, Biosphere 2 suffered for those lacks — being perceived as a cheap stunt because it tried to offset costs via marketing and tourism, getting derided by the science establishment because it didn’t entirely hew to formal experimental protocols. When the publicity turned negative, Allen and company became secretive rather than admit their mistakes, which further undermined the project’s credibility.

Nonetheless, despite all difficulties (which included one accident requiring surgery and a perilous decline in oxygen levels, both necessitating compromising actions), Biosphere 2 was a triumph in some respects — particularly for its “terrenauts,” many of whom would go back inside in a heartbeat, four decades later. Unfortunately, the immediate aftermath was a serious rift between Allen’s camp and others (notably Bass), which ultimately barred him from any further involvement with or control of his own baby. The site is now owned by the University of Arizona and used primarily for educational purposes.

There’s surprisingly little insight here into personal dynamics among the “Biospherians” (which included two couples), though of course much gossipy public speculation at the time centered on just that. Only one of them has since died. All the survivors, along with Allen and most other major participants and observers, provide latter-day interviews here. Their undimmed enthusiasm comes across as an incongruous yet moving spark of idealism in our darkening current world, in which science itself seems to be receding from popular trust.

“Spaceship Earth,” whose fascinating story loses nothing for taking a full hour in getting to the actual two-year experiment, has the excitement and involvement of a fictive sci-fi narrative. (Naturally its “stars” were required to wear specially designed futuristic jumpsuits for their public appearances.) Editor David Teague does a beautiful job sculpting what must have been a mountain of material into a cogent, compelling feature. And the film’s optimistic spirit gets a tremendous boost from Owen Pallett’s orchestral score, whose ennobling tenor strikes a superb stylistic midpoint between Aaron Copland and Philip Glass.

'Spaceship Earth': Film Review

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 28, 2020. Running time: 114 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Impact Partners presentation of a RadicalMedia production in association with Stacey Reiss Productions. (Int'l sales: Cinetic, Los Angeles.) Producers: Matt Wolf, Stacey Reiss. Executive producers: Jon Kamen, Dave Sirulnick, Stanley Buchthal, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Paula Froehle, Steve Cohen, Pierre Hauser, Sarah Johnson, Nion McEvoy, Leslie Berriman, Lessing Stern, Andrea van Beuren. Co-producer: Andrea Berman.

Crew: Director: Matt Wolf. Camera: Sam Wootton. Editor: David Teague. Music: Owen Pallett.

With: John Allen, Tony Burgess, Freddy Dempster, Kathy Dyhr, Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Larry Winokour.

More Film

  • Nardjes A.

    ‘Invisible Life’s’ Karim Ainouz Drops Trailer for 'Nardjes A.’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    On Feb. 14 last year, Karim Aïnouz arrived in Algeria to trace via the story of his parents the Algerian Revolution which happened 60 years ago – its 1954-62 War of Independence from France. The uprising he very quickly started to shoot, however, was one happening right then, the Revolution of Smiles, whose first street [...]

  • Call of the Wild

    Harrison Ford in 'The Call of the Wild': Film Review

    Dogs, in their rambunctious domesticated way, can lead us overly civilized humans a step or two closer to the natural world. So it’s only fitting that the best dog movies have saluted that unruly canine spirit without a lot of artificial flavoring. Hollywood’s classic dog tales, like “Old Yeller” (1957) or “Lassie Come Home” (1943), [...]

  • Adventures of a Mathematician

    Indie Sales Unveils Trailer For 'Adventures of a Mathematician' (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run up to Berlin’s European Film Market, Indie Sales has unveiled the trailer for Thor Klein’s “Adventures of a Mathematician” which had its world premiere in Palm Springs. The film tells the inspiring true story of a Polish-Jewish mathematician who got a fellowship at Harvard and went on to join the prestigious Manhattan [...]

  • Sonic (Ben Schwartz) in SONIC THE

    How Internet Backlash Helped 'Sonic the Hedgehog' Avoid Box Office Disaster

    It’s not a stretch to say Universal’s “Cats” and Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog” had two of the most polarizing movie trailers in recent memory. Both caught fire online for all the wrong reasons after fans on social media torched the questionable CGI. “Cats,” an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, used a new science called [...]

  • Neumond Berlin Germany Restaurant

    Berlin Offers Diversity in Restaurant Scene

    Berlin Film Festival attendees have a chance to sample the diverse cuisine of a foodie city. Some of the top pics for a pre-film repast: Adana Grillhaus  A hugely popular Turkish restaurant in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, Adana Grillhaus now has a second location right around the corner. Popular on Variety Manteuffelstr. 86 +49 30 6127790 [...]

  • my salinger year

    Berlin Festival's New Selection Committee Takes Off

    Berlin’s new seven-member selection committee — four women and three men — comprises the core of new director Carlo Chatrian’s programming staff, which is led Canadian critic Mark Peranson. Peranson was the Locarno Film Festival’s chief of programming when Chatrian headed that Swiss festival. This year, Berlin is opening with “My Salinger Year,” starring Sigourney [...]

  • Mariette Rissenbeek Berlin Film Festival Executive

    Mariette Rissenbeek Faces Challenges as Berlin Festival Executive Director

    Making her debut as the new executive director of the Berlin Film Festival this year, Mariette Rissenbeek is facing some big challenges after taking over management duties at one of the world’s biggest public film fests. Rissenbeek and new artistic director Carlo Chatrian succeed Dieter Kosslick, who left an indelible mark on the fest after [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content