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‘Spaceship Earth’: Film Review

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

Spaceship Earth
PHILIPPE PLAILLY/SCIENCE PHOTO L

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.

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.
  • Music By: