Spaceship Earth (2020)
Directed by Matt Wolf
In 1991 an ambitious project began in the wilderness of Arizona. This was Biosphere 2, a three-acre structure built to be an artificial, enclosed ecological system. Seven biomes were represented inside the Biosphere: a rainforest, saltwater habitat with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah, a fog desert, and two spaces reserved for human habitation and scientific work. Eight people from various scientific backgrounds were locked inside Biosphere 2 to create a self-sustaining system, the likes of which could be replicated to enable human colonies on other planets that didn’t have the elements needed to sustain life. Over two years, this crew went through a series of challenges, both with the elements and interpersonally. By the end, there were many questions as to the scientific validity of the whole endeavor.
This is not so much a documentary about Biosphere 2 as it is a chronicle of John Allen, a man who seeks to find more sustainable ways for humanity to live with nature. The film begins in the late 1960s as Allen starts to recruit a group of likeminded people. You might think this is about to diverge into the realm of a cult, which was fairly common at that time, but everyone involved seems very ambitious and cogent. Allen had the final say, but everyone was free of drugs and other addictive influences. They just loved science and art and wanted to be free to pursue it all. I was quite impressed with the sequence that shows how they built their own ship that they took out into the Pacific Ocean.
This first half of the film is all set up to the second half, the part for which the audience has sat down to watch this doc, when everything falls apart. It is clear that Allen’s group is not socialist or Leftist but very much libertarian. They talk about how their world travels were made possible by founding corporations around the globe. This is what leads to their partnership with Texas oil heir Edward Bass, a partnership that would lead to the collapse of the Biosphere 2 project.
While Allen starts out a good manager of people on a small scale when not under scrutiny, we see those skills fall apart with the media attention Biosphere garnered. It became clear a short time into the experiment that the researchers were factionalizing, and this was made worse by spiking levels of CO2. A number of choices were made that caused the variables of the experiment to increase and created a space for a pointed critique of the whole operation. Allen is shown to be a control freak, and he was in a situation where he wasn’t the person on the top of the food chain. Things got bad.
I was disappointed that the director brought up so many things but never explored them in detail. We get to know some of the “bionauts” but never to a level of depth that makes me connect with them. There is a mention of infighting, and it’s touched on very lightly, but the director chooses not to explore that more. We get the rough outline of a conflict between Allen and an engineer, but then it gets all wrapped up nicely. I think these people are a little too uncritical, and it behooves the director to ask better questions and explore the crucial aspects of the story more. The central thesis of Allen and his Syngerians is of a future society where peace and harmony reign, but his inner circle is noticeably shrunk by the end of the movie. It’s is vital to address what happens when you have people that want to go their own way. Especially when those people have so much of the power in terms of investment, a la Mr. Edward Bass.