Spaceship Earth Review
If you’re already on the verge of a psychotic breakdown after just over a month in lockdown, spare a thought for the eight scientists who spent two years living inside an enclosed replica of the earth’s biosphere. The unique nature of the “Biosphere 2” experiment generated headlines in the early 90’s, largely due to a fascination that a project of this scale was being conducted not by academic experts or government researchers, but by a collective born out of San Francisco’s counterculture scene. If there’s anything surprising about Spaceship Earth, director Matt Wolf’s documentary account of the experiment, it’s probably that such a unique, and at the time high profile, experiment that has only gained relevance with climate change being pushed up the political agenda has largely been reduced to a footnote in history.
Wolf’s documentary doesn’t ignore the quirkiness of the collective, but he largely plays the film as a straight recount of how events played out. Naturally, this makes it likelier that a wider audience will be able to learn from the lessons of a project that became disgraced in retrospect (for reasons partially due to the intervention of a future senior figure in the Trump White House), before being swiftly forgotten. But a familiar talking heads-style documentary approach does a disservice to the unmistakably surreal nature of the experiment, never focusing on the more intriguing missteps along the way with quite the attention to detail they need. You can tell Wolf is fascinated by the story - but this is a documentary in need of a director with a critical eye to give a more in-depth account of what went down, so future generations of scientists and researchers can clearly learn from the mistakes made here.
Before the researchers enter the biosphere, we roll back to the late 1960’s, where the group met the Harvard educated John Allen in San Francisco. He helped co-found their experimental theatre troupe, The Theater of All Possibilities, and as they moved away from California to New Mexico, they began thinking more about climate based issues. This is where they coined the idea for the Biosphere experiment, and with the help of progressive billionaire Ed Bass, they built the three acre Biosphere, designed to create its own air, oxygen, and food. By the early 90’s, they headed inside to commence their research - and it wasn’t long before they had to start making compromises that would harm their standing in the scientific community.
During the time it took place, the Biosphere experiment was quickly pushed down the news agenda due to wide spread skepticism. The academic community largely derided the way that they weren’t following protocols when documenting their research, increasingly shutting themselves away instead of following criticism, and changing aspects of their experiment without prior warning. Meanwhile, the publicity the Biosphere did get was from keeping the external site open to the public, leaving many to think it was simply a publicity stunt. Wolf couldn’t be accused of ignoring this, and he does have his subjects discuss this - but his straightforward recounting of events, prioritising new interviews and archive footage captured in the biosphere, doesn’t cover the subject with the depth I hoped. The experiment generated a lot of controversy as it continued, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it only ruffled a few feathers based on the evidence presented here.
Similarly, many of the more surreal aspects of the experiment are rushed through. We are never told how personal relationships were affected, even though we are shown video footage of several people cracking under the pressure of living within a confined space for a sustained period of time. Instead, we get extended passages on quirkier aspects, such as a tidbit about all deserts being cooked using bananas because only natural products could be used in the experiment, as Wolf leaves the more interesting examination of the researchers’ mental states as nothing more than a background detail. The documentary is frustratingly always scratching the surface, despite having access to all but one of the researchers who took part. It never stops being entertaining, but feels more like an entry point before researching in greater detail, rather than a definitive encapsulation of the experiment.
Spaceship Earth launching on VoD from May 8th