At a time when many of us are living in isolation comes “Spaceship Earth,” a documentary about eight people who spent two years in self quarantine inside BIOSPHERE 2, an airtight man-made replica of the Earth’s ecosystem. “This is an incredible moment,” says one of the biospherians as they enter the facility. “The future is here.”
The idea was born of a free-thinking counter-cultural community in Northern California. In a situation that could only have emerged from the 1960s, this band of thinkers and futurists came together as the Theater of All Possibilities, a company formed by a charismatic Oklahoman named John Allen to open minds to his ideas about science and ecological sustainability through experimental theatre. “Small groups are the engines of change.” They travel the world on what amounts to an ark, spreading their ideas through theatre and art.
By 1991, through a series of preposterous sounding events, Allen and Co and their project BIOSPHERE 2—which included a forest and real coral reef—become media darlings with stories on every morning show and Phil Donohue providing glowing coverage of their efforts to find a sustainable way forward for the planet.
Through archival and contemporary interviews we meet the eight main players. “We were pioneers. We were the first biospherians. You gave us this new world. We were going to take care of it.”
But soon questions arise. Is it science of ecological entertainment? Who, exactly, is footing the bill? Is it possible to live inside this research facility without help from the outside?
“Spaceship Earth” is a detailed look at how this unlikely band of people created something that had never been done before. In the first half director Matt Wolf gets weighed down by the origin story, a complicated tale of how everyone came together. It’s talking head and archival footage punctuated by some truly dreadful experimental theatre. Things get more interesting the second half, despite a lack of footage from inside the sphere, as the story of Allen’s new-but-flawed Utopia blossoms.
Ultimately the story is one not of a lack of scientific chops or bizarre experimental thinking or even of a miscalculation of carbon dioxide levels but of big ideas brought down by the media’s thirst for pageantry and investors who wanted a quick turn-around on their money. The movie could have benefitted from a more scientific approach—a few outside experts to explain the BIOSPHERE’s plusses and minuses—but as a document of stranger-than-fiction innovation, it’s a timely and interesting film.