Spaceship Earth review: a terrific documentary

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Out now on DVD is the wonderful Spaceship Earth, a film that’s a whole lot more than its title may lead you to suspect.

At first glance, Spaceship Earth sounds like the title of a sci-fi B-movie. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s not a title that immediately makes you think of scientific and artistic endeavour, a story that spans 50 years, and an outpouring of media outrage and criticism. Yet Spaceship Earth documents and explores the story behind one of the most extraordinary scientific experiments of the 20th century, that of Biosphere 2, an 3.14-hectare structure built in the Arizona desert intended to sustain a selection of animal, plant and human life for two years. The proposal itself is extraordinary; the story more so.

Spaceship Earth tells this story masterfully. Like a classic epic, the film begins in medias res, with a crowd of journalists and the public waiting for the scientists’ grand entrance into Biosphere 2, reminiscent of the audience for the moon landing. It all feels very grand, if tinged with doubt and phrases such as ‘prefab Paradise’. The scientists close the door, with some difficulty, and begin their apparent two-year confinement. With that, back to where it all started, in 1966 San Francisco.

The seeds of Biosphere 2 were planted in Theater of All Possibilities, a collaborative group of people who, with childlike ambition and vigour, wanted to do everything – theatre, art, science, architecture – all centred around John Allen, the half-leader, half-father figure of the group. Over the next 25 years, we see how these seeds come to germinate and grow – the community attracted people from all walks of life, burning with enthusiasm and energy. “You notice these moments,” says Kathelin Gray, aka ‘Salty’, “and that’s when you act.” Noticing the potential for change in the world, plus the energy and new ideas within the group, resulted in projects such as building a ship, opening an art gallery, experimental theatre, and creating the Synergia Ranch.

All of these accomplishments, building on skills in art, scientific understanding, engineering and project management, eventually take us into the late 80s, where the idea for Biosphere 2 is conceived and made a reality. The film mixes past and present footage, interviews with significant biospherians and members of Allen’s inner circle as well as Allen himself. The editing is flawless: as soon as a question occurs to the viewer, it’s answered. It’s an epic both in the modern and classical sense: decades pass seamlessly, as well as the film’s main focus, the two years spent in the biosphere.

As with all great epics, Spaceship Earth has its moments of tragedy and downfall. Revelations of smuggling, accusations of secrecy and betrayal, and the loss of scientific integrity are not shied away from, and Allen’s role in these darker moments is challenged and examined. This is not an easy watch – like Tony Burgess, the biosphere’s desert ecologist, those who come from dysfunctional families will recognise behaviour patterns which can all so easily slip into determined manipulation and concealment of the truth. Despite this, the film still soars triumphantly into the present, recognising Biosphere 2 for what it represented rather than what it wasn’t.

Spaceship Earth is a film relevant to the present day in more ways than one. The issue of climate change is more pressing than ever, and Biosphere 2’s name is a constant reminder that we are all living on the first biosphere: Earth. The Synergia community, despite the trials and tribulations of Biosphere 2, is still going, and the film ends with the feeling of unity and close friendship that was needed for Biosphere 2. In these extraordinary times, where so many of us are separated and uncertain about the future, the film’s strong sense of togetherness and working collaboratively towards a brighter future sparks an inspiration to keep going, to believe that this too shall pass.


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