Film Review – Spaceship Earth
In 1991, eight people stepped into a manmade structure that housed a replica of Earth’s ecosystem. They were to live there two full years, without the help of outside resources (including air). The building was named “Biosphere 2.” Why? Because “Biosphere 1” was Earth itself. Inside the glass paneling and white façade was a living, breathing series of tropical, desert, and marsh-like sections, populated by various animals and insects. It even contained a mini version of an ocean. The purpose of this “experiment” was to see if man can create and maintain the delicate balance of Earth’s ecosystem in the event that the planet was no longer suitable to survive. That’s right – Biosphere 2 was meant to test if we could live in outer space.
I vaguely recall this story as a kid. Sadly, I was more familiar with the film it inspired: the Pauly Shore stinker Bio-Dome (1996). But now with the documentary Spaceship Earth (2020), director Matt Wolf takes us on a deep dive examination of Biosphere 2 and the people behind its creation. Almost from the beginning, the story tosses our expectations out of the window. It’s revealed that the people who conjured up the idea were not scientists but a company of free-thinking actors and performers, led by their charismatic leader John Allen.
Allen takes much of the spotlight. His ability to inspire and lead others attracted people in need of direction. His ambition (and perhaps narcissism) allowed him to imagine large projects for the group to participate in. On stage performances didn’t satisfy his desire to reach out for bigger things. One goal had them create their own ranch to live on, another had them building their own large sized boat. Granted, few (if any) of the members understood how to farm or had seafaring experience. One interviewee described how the boat didn’t have their equipment properly tied down, and how their guidance system broke and fell into the ocean. And yet, through sheer determination and willpower, they were able to accomplish those feats.
If Allen and his troupe sound a bit like a cult, you wouldn’t be too far off. Wolf touches on how the members fell into Allen’s influence, performing tasks at his every whim. In interviews, they each talk about Allen with reverence, explaining how he opened them up to new ideas and forms of expressions. There’s a lot of archival footage here, and through it we get a sense that Allen’s friendly demeanor covers a hidden side, kind of like a car salesman. But it’s that very persona that convinced American businessman Ed Bass to fund Allen’s biggest dream up to that point: Biosphere 2.
Wolf takes a fairly conventional approach with telling the story of Allen, his group, and Biosphere 2. Since it was such a large project and had garnered national buzz, there are hours and hours of footage taken from inside the structure. Wolf (along with editor David Teague) piece these bits together with interviews narrating what we see. Right from the start, there were issues. The fact that the door the crew (or “Biospherians”) used to access the facility wouldn’t close properly should have been seen as foreshadowing. Crops wouldn’t grow, the majority of the wildlife died, and even more critical was the drop in oxygen levels and spike in carbon monoxide. The situation became so dire that oxygen had to be pumped in.
This outside influence would cause many – including those in the scientific community – to brand the experiment as a mere publicity stunt or “scientific entertainment.” Was Biosphere 2 a failed mission? That answer depends on how one views the project and its central goal. Yes, Allen and his team set specific rules for how the crew would live in the facility, and in the end those rules were broken. The idea that the project was an “experiment” to begin with is shaky at best, given that it could not be recreated to help rule out variants. I don’t think we’re any closer to having an organic habitat shoot off into space than we were in 1991. Today, Biosphere 2 is owned by the University of Arizona, focused more on understanding Earth than leaving it.
But on a deeper level, Wolf highlights how a group of people – many of whom knew little about science – took it upon themselves to get the two-year mission off the ground. Despite the funny spacesuit uniforms, the mission did have an earnest intent. They saw the adverse effects of pollution and climate change long before it became a hot button political topic. How they were able to even take on the challenge shows how grit and unwavering belief can take a person anywhere they want to go. Is that idea a little simple and sentimental? Maybe, but in times like these, simple and sentimental might be exactly what we need.