Spaceship Earth: Mission Inscrutable, by Tyler Smith
In 1991, a dedicated group of artists and scientists – headed by a charismatic visionary and backed by an eccentric billionaire – built a self-enclosed ecosystem in Arizona. They dubbed it “Biosphere 2” and selected eight people to live inside the enclosure for two years, maintaining crops and conducting experiments. This event was greatly publicized, but eventually undercut by secrecy and dubious science. In the end, the Biosphere 2 mission proved to be little more than an interesting story, ultimately adding up to very little. Sadly, this description could also apply to Matt Wolf’s documentary Spaceship Earth, which does a good job of giving the details of the forgotten experiment, but lacks any real depth.
The whole project is the brainchild of John Allen, a bold and likable man who some characterized as a cult leader of sorts. Allen was able to capture the imaginations of several key people, first in the 1960s with his avante garde theatre productions, then with a vision of peaceful communal living. While this level of leadership is certainly suspect – the group eventually builds and launches their own barge, in a development eerily similar to the actions of L. Ron Hubbard – those involved hardly seem like brainwashed subjects. Instead, they are idealists, eager to embrace a different type of life than the one prescribed for them by American society.
We see Allan’s ambitions slowly grow as he is able to convince more and more people of his motives and abilities. As the group surveys the increasingly-troubling state of the environment, they conclude that space may one day be mankind’s only refuge. So Allen and his acolytes resolve to simulate the space stations of the future, right here on Earth. They build a giant structure in the desert of Arizona, filling it with plants, trees, soil, rocks, and even seawater. They gather animals from all around the world; a veritable Noah’s Ark. They resolve to produce their own oxygen, being careful not to import any air from the outside world. The primary purpose of the project is to create a completely independent ecosystem, fully capable of sustaining itself.
Wolf is thorough in his research, gathering news coverage, interviews, and candid footage from the era, combining it with the retrospective insights of those involved. The excitement is palpable, even if the ultimate goal of the project is at times fuzzy. Indeed, each person involved seems to have his own agenda, including a doctor utterly convinced that he can extend the human lifespan to 120 years through nutrition and sees Biosphere 2 as a perfect opportunity to influence and observe human subjects. These brief moments of ulterior motives and honest confessions are effective enough to draw us in, as the increasingly-portentous tone of the film promises harsh lessons to come.
Unfortunately, the film never quite comes together into a coherent whole. Instead, we get snippets of news footage and interviews proclaiming the experiment a failure, without ever quite explaining why. As the subjects pontificate about the impact of Biosphere 2, Wolf attempts to link the importance of such a project with the dangers of climate change. There’s nothing wrong with this perspective, and in fact I would have appreciated Wolf going deeper into the possible practical applications of the project. But it is introduced so late in the film that it feels tacked on, suggesting that Wolf himself didn’t quite know where he ultimately wanted to go with the film and just decided to tie it into a modern relevant discussion.
Perhaps Matt Wolf simply wanted to tell the story of John Allen, Biosphere 2, and the fascinating media event that it all turned out to be. Maybe he just thought that it was all simply too strange to be forgotten (which I would agree with). Or indeed maybe he does see significance in the project and felt that we could all learn an important lesson from this unusual little experiment. If Wolf does want the audience to draw vital conclusions from this story, he seems to be too squeamish to really push for them, opting instead to approach these events much as the media did at the time. Biosphere 2 is treated as an amusing diversion that could perhaps hold some deeper meaning, but rarely registers as much more than a mere novelty; briefly considered, but quickly discarded.