The trials and errors of “Spaceship Earth”

While sometimes scant on insider footage, this 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival selection is still an appealing experiment.

While sometimes scant on insider footage, this 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival selection is still an appealing experiment.

Everything I know about Biosphere 1, I have learned from living here, on Earth. Everything I know about Biosphere 2, an Earth system science research facility in Oracle, Arizona, I learned from watching the 2020 documentary Spaceship Earth. If you want a nice overview of what a group of energetic thespians and eco-conscious go-getters can build if they simply put their minds to it with enough investment capital from an oil tycoon, Matt Wolf’s documentary is for you. Originally a selection in the now-canceled 2020 Wisconsin Film Festival selection, this film is now available for digital rental as a benefit for UW Cinematheque.

Yes, the story is bizarre—a blend of archival footage, news snippets, and contemporary interviews with Biosphere 2’s intellectual father, John Allen, and the collective action group he pulled together amid the heady utopian experiments of late-1960s San Francisco. Spaceship Earth also affords us the perspectives of Mark Nelson, Linda Leigh, and Sally Silverstone, who willingly sealed themselves inside the self-sustained world of Biosphere 2 with five other people for two years beginning on September 26, 1991, in the name of science, exploration, and experimentation. To be blunt, things get pretty ugly. And, not to spoil the exact details of the mess, but I was left a bit dissatisfied with the film’s focus on the drama that ensued in the outside world rather than the events that took place inside Biosphere 2. 


It may be that my new quarantine activity of watching season 4 of the UK reality TV series Love Island is making me rabid for group dynamic drama. However, truly the most interesting angle is the triumphs, failures, and everything in-between that happened after the eight biospherians clumsily sealed the door and said, “bye-bye” to the outside. We get glimpses and accounts of research projects, rising tension, birthday parties, mania, starvation, and suffocation. However, I just simply wanted more footage and information about life inside the dome.

Maybe director Wolf wasn’t as interested in using what happened inside of the mini-world of the mixed ocean/desert/jungle/farm to emphasize his thematic points about greed polluting our peaceful cohabitation with our fellow humans, plants, and animals on Earth. To be fair, perhaps I’m just being greedy myself, but I also did miss out on the live reality TV-style media frenzy that took place surrounding the mishaps of Biosphere 2, as I was just a young babe in arms at the time. 

All in all, Spaceship Earth is a fun watch, recommended for anyone out there feeling like your place on Biosphere 1 (aka Earth) seems tiny at the moment. You can stream like a mensch and watch the documentary complete with follow-up conversation with director Matt Wolf here in support of UW Cinematheque. It’s also available on Hulu.

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