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Review: Spaceship Earth (2020)

Spaceship Earth (2020)

Directed by: Matt Wolf

Premise: A documentary about Biosphere 2. In the early 1990s a group of people created a giant terrarium in which they lived for two years. The experiment was intended to demonstrate how people might create a sustainable outpost on another planet.

What Works: Spaceship Earth tells the behind-the-scenes story of Biosphere 2 and the diverse group of people who lived and worked on it. For those who can remember it, Biosphere 2 was considered an oddity in its day and Spaceship Earth takes a look at the people involved and what they were trying to do. One of the most interesting aspects of Biosphere 2 was the crew’s eclectic background. A few of these people had scientific degrees but several others had been involved in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and 70s and had lived in communes. That gives a sense of their values as well as the spirit in which they went forward with the Biosphere 2 project. Spaceship Earth includes interviews with many of the crew members who were sealed inside of Biosphere 2 and their commentary is generally forthcoming. We get a sense of who they are and the passage of nearly three decades allows the participants some perspective on their successes and mistakes. Especially effective are the sequences exploring the media’s reportage of Biosphere 2. As it is portrayed here, the coverage was a classic case of the news media overhyping an event only to tear it down when Biosphere 2 failed to live up to inflated expectations. The bulk of Spaceship Earth deals with the 1991 – 1993 mission and the challenges and perils of the crew’s time inside of the biosphere. The film includes a lot of archival footage and it’s put to good use.

What Doesn’t: Biosphere 2 was generally considered a failure in its day. Spaceship Earth attempts to rehabilitate the experiment’s public image and it has to be understood in that way. The filmmakers acknowledge some of the criticisms such as the way the participants violated the rules of their experiment, but Biosphere 2’s critics are often portrayed as sticks-in-the-mud who didn’t get it. The documentary primarily focuses on the initial 1991 – 1993 mission but the Biosphere 2 facility still exists and has had a complicated history. A second mission began in 1994 and it was just as potentially interesting as the first mission but it’s also more embarrassing and at odds with the filmmakers’ intent to rehabilitate the experiment’s image. That embarrassment is evident in the way the documentary rushes through that period.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Spaceship Earth has to be understood as a film with an agenda but it succeeds in deepening the audience’s understanding of Biosphere 2. For those who remember this curious cultural anecdote from the early 1990s it offers a new way of looking at the experiment and those too young to remember it may find Spaceship Earth interesting and maybe even a little inspiring.

Episode: #837 (January 31, 2021)