'Spaceship Earth' Sheds Light on Environmental Activism's Corporate Downfall

Directed by Matt Wolf

BY Laura Di GirolamoPublished May 19, 2020

In 1991, a group of environmentalist hippies/theatre geeks got together to develop Biosphere 2, an endeavour that, at its core, was a noble one: to test out what it might be like for human colonies on Mars by living solely within a biosphere that simulated an Earth-like environment, complete with plants, animals and living quarters. Funded by oil billionaires and costing upwards of $200 million, the entire project was the subject of much media scrutiny and, ultimately, a failure. The eight "bionauts" soon realized it was impossible to live solely in a large terrarium for two years as animals began to die and oxygen grew scarce, and Biosphere 2 was eventually bought out by corporate bogeymen (featuring a surprise cameo from one very well-known corporate bogeyman, Steve Bannon).

Spaceship Earth provides a widely arching overview of the whole Biosphere 2 fiasco, from its origins in the counterculture 1960s New Age movement and contemporary theatre to its inspiration on today's climate change and sustainability activists. The broad nature of this nearly two-hour documentary is a thought-provoking look at failed idealism and big business colliding, and there's plenty of musing on how the hippie movement was co-opted by capitalism. But because it touches on so many themes, it never really lands on one, and the few that are only teased are the most fascinating.

There are threads of narratives about the media circus surrounding Biosphere 2, the stress and claustrophobia experienced by its inhabitants, and the charismatic, cult-leader-like nature of Biosphere 2's initial ideas man and head misfit genius, John Allen. Unfortunately, there's not enough of this, leaving us detached and bogged down in rhetoric. Spaceship Earth spends quite a lot of time ruminating on the ideas and methods behind the project, after a promising opening in which we spend more time learning about the people behind it

Much of Spaceship Earth is made up of footage shot by the "bionauts" on their journey from commune radicalists to the butt of a Pauly Shore joke, and the breadth of this footage is pretty impressive. It's most engaging when it shows the whole crew working, playing, laughing, fighting, farming and performing in their theatre troupe in the weeks before the launch of their doomed project, and humanizes what the media saw as a bunch of geeky cult weirdos in Star Trek outfits.

Considering how closely it relates to our current, prolonged stage of isolation, the story of Biosphere 2 ought to be more interesting. But Spaceship Earth occasionally dives too far down into navel-gazing and contemplative monologues about the state of our world. This usually happens during the moments when the film takes itself too seriously, framing its subjects as ecological pioneers instead of the arbiters of a costly mistake. For the most part, its central cast of characters are endearing weirdos, and their ambition and optimism are inspiring, but it's hard not to see them as misguided hippies acting out a multimillion dollar science project in the name of changing the world, no matter how insistently the film glosses over how much this failed project costs.
(Elevation Pictures)

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