'Spaceship Earth': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Sci-fi and the counterculture blend in an involving look at the people behind Biosphere 2.

Matt Wolf profiles the group that built a self-contained world in the desert and sealed eight of its members inside for two years.

Almost as much a drama of public relations as the story of a surprisingly successful collective of '60s dreamers, Matt Wolf's Spaceship Earth gets to know the men and women responsible for Biosphere 2, a ballyhooed experiment in self-contained ecological sustainability. Fascinating as a case study in turning big ideas into reality (sadly, a billionaire's help is often required), the documentary should appeal to old hippies and young futurists, eco-activists and anyone who enjoys watching small groups of people threaten to implode. It also makes a fine corrective to media hype (both pro and con) that surrounded this 1991 experiment, suggesting it was hardly the high-minded flop (or scam) some believed it to be.

To anyone unfamiliar with the experiment, in which eight people locked themselves into a vast, airtight structure to observe how its collection of plants and animals would fare for two years, the doc's opening clips might suggest a bizarre rite from a sci-fi film: Eight "biospherians," dressed in Star Treky uniforms, stiffly address a throng of reporters before entering an airlock and sealing it. Then they even more stiffly address a camera inside the facility, with one flatly intoning, "This is an incredible moment. The future is here."

But these people weren't the tranquilized cult members you might think from those clips. They were experienced researchers in various disciplines, tied to a collective of free-thinking artists born 25 years earlier in the age of Aquarius.

In 1967 San Francisco, Kathelin Gray was a young woman fascinated by Rene Daumal's allegorical novel Mount Analogue. She started discussing it with a stranger named John Allen, dreaming of the kind of reinvention of reality the book entailed. As Gray recalls it, Allen more or less replied, "Yes, let's do that." And he set about making it happen.

An older, handsome and charismatic man, Allen had many friends to call into such a project. After long discussions about the ways a new society might be created, they decided that theater was the best venue exploring their diverse ideas: The "Theater of All Possibilities" was formed.

Based on clips we see here of acting exercises and the like, a skeptical observer at the time might have concluded this was just another group of privileged white kids who'd ditch their avant-garde hobby when it was time to make some money. Not so. In fact, the group soon fled San Francisco, annoyed at the lack of seriousness among hippies there. They bought land in New Mexico, where we see them building houses and planting crops. Attracted to their magnetic leader, they dove into individual responsibilities: A Brooklyn kid named Mark Nelson who knew nothing about plants was asked to learn how to start an orchard, and he did. Later, in Oakland, the relatively inexperienced Margaret Augustine took charge of a stranger effort: The group built a ship capable of carrying them around the world. The Heraclitus is still sailing, its crew conducting cultural and scientific expeditions from Antarctica to Asia.

"We weren't a commune," one interviewee says early on, but a "quite capitalistic" corporation. The billionaire heir of a Texas oil dynasty supplied start-up money for the Theater's operations, but, founding businesses around the world, they were meant to pay off in the end. As the group started to focus in an intense way on ecology and sustainable biomes, Bass funded something that might only pay off during the colonization of other planets: Biosphere 2. ("Biosphere 1," if you're wondering, is the planet Earth.)

It's fascinating to see such a staggering project come together: A huge, glass-enclosed complex in Arizona was filled with plants and animals from everywhere on the planet; a mini-ocean with a real coral reef was constructed; and a small forest was planted that would consume inhabitants' CO2 and provide oxygen. Allen and his colleagues recruited new specialists willing to enter this environment, lock the doors and see if they could keep it alive for two years without outside help.

It didn't go perfectly (how could it have?). Using both present-tense interviews and footage from the time, Wolf shows how things nearly fell apart. But he also captures the seriousness of purpose behind what some saw as a giant publicity stunt — and convinces us that this was a one-of-a-kind way to learn some of the things humanity will need to know as this world changes and others are considered for habitation. The tale has a sad ending with a "we're still working" asterisk, and it's painful to report that the sad part involves Steve Bannon. Wolf doesn't explore how the future Trump strategist let this idealistic venture wither. If only he, like the biospherians, had been willing to lock himself inside and withdraw from the world.

Production company: RadicalMedia
Director: Matt Wolf
Producers: Matt Wolf, Stacey Reiss
Director of photography: Sam Wootton
Editor: David Teague
Composer: Owen Pallett
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Eric Sloss, Cinetic

115 minutes