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‘Spaceship Earth’ Review: Neon Doc Looks Back at One of Humanity’s Wildest Science Experiments

In 1991, eight hippies sealed themselves away in a self-sustainable $150 million terrarium for 2 years. Matt Wolf's new documentary studies what happened next.

On September 26, 1991, the world watched as eight visionary hippies dressed up as cosmonauts and sealed themselves inside the massive, environmentally self-sustaining, $150 million glass vivarium where they would live together for the next two years. The facility was dubbed “Biosphere 2,” a man-made sequel to Earth that would offer a microcosmic glimpse of our impact on the planet, and explore the possibility of replicating it elsewhere in the galaxy. A non-profit that was populated by the members of an experimental theater troupe and funded by the heir to a Texas oil fortune, the project was hailed by some as “the most exciting scientific undertaking since we launched toward the moon,” and derided by others as “New Age drivel.” It was beautiful, it was flawed, and it ended — as America’s most aspirational undertakings often do — with Steve Bannon destroying the whole thing out of spite.

But if a clear villain emerges in the final minutes of Matt Wolf’s rich and resonant new documentary, the rest of “Spaceship Earth” is often more compelling for its reluctance to pass judgment. The “Teenage” filmmaker is clearly sympathetic towards the so-called “biospherians,” whose cult-adjacent lifestyle belied a more profound understanding of the climate crisis than many people even have today; the Biosphere 2 project has been largely forgotten, and the very act of rescuing this story from the ash heap of history is enough to suggest that Wolf doesn’t just want to laugh at it (besides, we already have the classic motion picture comedy “Bio-Dome” for that).

On the other hand, the film doesn’t pave over the faults of the experiment, explain away its eccentricities, or suggest that the biospherians weren’t partly responsible for their excoriation from the press. Even in the rare moments when Owen Pallett’s lush and see-sawing score threatens to suggest otherwise, it’s evident that Wolf hasn’t made some kind of faux-inspirational doc about how the “people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” On the contrary, “Spaceship Earth” touches down as a grounded and even clinical analysis of our natural skepticism towards dreamers — of how our hope can sour into hostility as soon as it loses an iota of its shine. And it might linger in viewers’ minds in a way that more explicit climate movies have not, because it confronts America’s seemingly irreconcilable disconnect between current actions and future consequences without getting stuck in the middle.

Wolf’s film borrows its title from Buckminster Fuller’s countercultural book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth,” which is predicated on the idea that our planet is a self-contained vessel hurtling through the universe, and that everyone who lives here has to make do with the resources that we have. This oxygen is all the oxygen there is; this water isn’t going to be resupplied from another world; the Earth and everything on it is extinguishable. And while the New Age-y members of the Theater of All Possibilities might seem like aliens from another world, they appreciated Fuller’s premise better than anyone. As one of Wolf’s subjects puts it, either in a clip from the film’s mega-trove of archival footage or in one of the newly recorded talking head interviews that are peppered throughout: “We have to take care of our biosphere because our biosphere is going to take care of us.”

And when the film opens with video of the biospherians entering their temporary new home, it’s tempting to share the excitement of the crowd that’s gathered to wish them goodbye. By the time “Spaceship Earth” returns to that moment an hour later after telling the long backstory of how this project took shape, you might be a bit less certain of its value. It doesn’t help that Wolf’s subjects come saddled with nicknames that don’t make you think of NASA so much as the Manson Family. Biosphere 2, we learn, was the brainchild of a charismatic thought leader by the name of John Allen, A.K.A. “Johnny Dolphin,” and he emerged into the counterculture of the mid-‘60s with an interest in the transformation of human potential — a potential he hoped to realize with the help of some like-minded young women. Not shady at all! Kathelin Gray (A.K.A. “Salty”) certainly didn’t think so when she met him on her 18th birthday. Nor did Marie Harding (“Flash”), a friend of Allen’s who was so uninterested in middle-class living that she agreed to marry him “for a project” when he proposed out of the blue.

In fairness to Allen, now a merry old man who participated in this film along with many of his acolytes, he often comes across as the rare svengali to maintain the courage of his altruistic convictions. Then again, Wolf’s film is strangely uninterested in plumbing the vague interpersonal drama that follows this story like a bad smell (not for nothing, but one of the subjects is nicknamed “Horse Shit”). Just because the women don’t seem traumatized — at least not by Allen — doesn’t mean we don’t want to know more about their lives together, and the adventures they shared as they circled the globe as a group of semi-capitalistic performance artists who were sustained by short-lived businesses and billionaire patron Ed Bass. Their interest in a brighter tomorrow is clear, but Wolf’s aversion to backstage drama (which becomes a visceral repudiation to reality show prurience once the biospherians are quarantined) is hard to square with a movie with such a natural interest in the friction between human behavior and scientific progress.

Once Biosphere 2 is complete and the experiment begins, some of that friction is expressed through Bass and Allen’s efforts to market it, and the media’s subsequent response. Dressed in red jumpsuits that were designed to stand out against the beige desert backdrop, the biospherians entered their vacuum-sealed atmosphere riding a wave of excitement that found them dangling precariously between science and entertainment (the idea for the project was hatched the year after Geraldo broke into Al Capone’s vault on live TV).

The hype around the experiment stoked the public’s love for wonder and sensation, and helped galvanize interest in a more sustainable future. It also made Biosphere 2 a target for actual scientists who resented the lack of attention paid to their own work, and vulnerable to a press that regarded the whole thing as a publicity stunt — not a simulation that was designed to document and allow for unexpected problems, but rather a David Blaine-like trick that people turned on as soon as they learned it wasn’t actually magic (the decision to pump some outside air into the biosphere caused quite the scandal).

Add that to some more legitimate pushback (including a criticism about only selecting white participants) and an ill-explained power struggle that gradually poisoned the atmosphere inside the Biosphere, and it starts to register that “sustainability” is inextricable from the threat that we pose to it. We may not be the virus from which the world needs to heal itself, despite what some eco-warriors types are proselytizing during the pandemic, but we’re definitely the variable in this experiment, and the tension between Allen and Bass that led the latter to hire Steve Bannon as a financial strategist… well, that data is no less valuable than the carbon dioxide levels inside Biosphere 2. “Spaceship Earth” may have been an even richer film if it hadn’t looked past its more lurid details, but Wolf’s film still makes certain to make its point about Biosphere 1: We all have to live with the fact that, on this Earth, nothing happens in a bubble.

Grade: B

Neon will release “Spaceship Earth” on Hulu, VOD, virtual cinemas, and participating drive-in theaters on Friday, May 8.

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