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June 2, 2020

Film review: ‘Spaceship Earth’ takes us inside the strange world of Biosphere 2

An experiment in quarantine, eight 'biospherians' sequestered themselves in a brave new mini-world. It didn't work out so well.

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“Spaceship Earth” begins in 1991, with eight people entering a giant biosphere and waving to the crowd that has gathered. We see clips from the nightly news shows about this grand experiment in building an environment on Earth that will help us understand what we might need to do if when we colonize space.

We learn that all sorts of plants and animals and forests and rivers have been re-created. There’s even a coral reef.

The idea is that these eight people will lock themselves away for two years, and that a team on the outside will help monitor the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the air and deal with any problems or emergencies that occur. The people on the inside will be able to contact those on the outside via videoconference calls.

There’s a hint that some folks think this is a bit kooky, but before we get too far down that rabbit hole, we start with a flashback — back to the late 1960s in San Francisco.

Kathelin Gray, a hipppy-dippy young gal who’s into Rene Daumal’s surrealistic, trippy novel “Mount Analogue,” starts talking with a neighbor, John Allen, who’s also searching for the meaning of life after getting an MBA at Harvard.

Gray and Allen hit it off, and they decide they’re going to pursue a sustainable life and invite others to join. Allen turns out to be what some folks think is charismatic, and he announces that he wants to search for a better life through group exercises, primarily theater. So they form “The Theater of All Possibilities.”

We see all of this because members of the group took handheld video footage of their escapades. It’s almost like something out of a Monty Python sketch, but these folks are serious, and they build bonds and believe that anything is possible.

Before long, they decide they want to get back to nature, so they buy some land in New Mexico and start farming. And then they decide to branch out. There’s an architect in the group, Margaret Augustine, and she wants to build an oceangoing ship. So Allen and the rest of the group say, “Why not?” So some of them take off for Oakland, Calif., and start building a ship by the bay.

Biosphere 2 leader John Allen with two biospherians, Abigail Allay and Linda Leigh. Credit: ecotechnics.edu
Biosphere 2 leader John Allen with two biospherians, Abigail Allay and Linda Leigh. Credit: ecotechnics.edu

At this point, any thinking person starts wondering: How are these folks able to afford all of this? And then the documentary’s director, Matt Wolf, clues us in. Ed Bass, the Fort Worth billionaire, is funding the project, and he has become good friends with Allen and the rest of the group. He believes that Allen’s ventures will eventually be self-sustainable and that he might actually get his money back. So what’s a $200 million investment?

The group builds the ship and they travel around the world, buying a rundown hotel in Italy and planning to renovate it, then buying this and that.

And this leads to an even bolder idea about ecology and the environment. Why not build a biosphere so that folks can get a better idea of what kind of self-sustaining structures would be required for space colonization?

And so we watch as the motley crew of hippies and self-described “avant-garde professionals” set out to build Biosphere 2, near Oracle, Ariz. (Biosphere 1 is Earth).

And that brings us back to the beginning, where we see the eight selected “biospherians” enter the brave new world.

'Spaceship Earth'
‘Spaceship Earth’

As anyone knows who was watching the news during this time, questions began to be raised about whether the experiments being conducted inside Biosphere 2 would have any scientific merit. And as you might expect, Allen and his group take great offense at such negativity. Allen is on the outside of Biosphere 2 with some of his closest aides, who are trying — unsuccessfully — to manage the media attention and the growing wariness of their financier, Bass.

Meanwhile, inside Biosphere 2, carbon dioxide levels are rising. One of the biospherians has an accident and needs surgery on her mangled hand. And then she leaves Biosphere 2 to get treatment, only to return with duffel bags that she didn’t have when she left. Biosphere 2 is supposed to be a closed environment, and this is a big no-no. So more bad news is being shared about the scientific worthiness of the experiment. Then we discover that they installed a carbon-scrubber in Biosphere 2 without disclosing that fact. And even the best efforts of the carbon-scrubber aren’t working. Everyone inside is getting sick, and the plants are dying.

It’s clear that the director has had access to all of the videos compiled by Allen and his group, and they talk about those years, having decided to grant full cooperation to the documentary project. So “Spaceship Earth” has a sympathetic tone toward the folks behind Biosphere 2. And to be honest, some of them seem quite lovely, in a hippie kind of way.

If there’s a big bad wolf in this fairy tale, it turns out to be Steve Bannon. Yes, that Steve Bannon, the Trump strategist, who is brought in by Bass to help turn things around. He does that by expelling the group from their Eden — and getting Bass to cut off the money.

But all is not sad for the band of dreamers from San Francisco. They still have their geodesic dome ranch in New Mexico, their oceangoing ship and other stuff. The University of Arizona is now responsible for operating Biosphere 2, using it as a research site.

Bass, meanwhile, is still a billionaire, having led the revitalization of downtown Fort Worth with the Bass Performance Hall.

“Spaceship Earth” premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s streaming on various sites, most notably on the Austin Film Society site at www.austinfilm.org.

‘Spaceship Earth’
Directed by Matt Wolf
Running time: 115 minutes

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin Americaan-Statesman.

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