REVIEW: Spaceship Earth [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: May 8th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Matt Wolf

Small groups are engines of change.

I was born in 1982 to parents who regularly watched the news during dinner, so learning about Matt Wolf‘s documentary Spaceship Earth was rather shocking considering I had absolutely no recollection of the 1991 Biosphere 2 project. None. At. All. The title conjured thoughts of Epcot Center rather than this two-year experiment covered by every major network during its optimistic genesis and unfortunate demise. It therefore felt weird to watch this account of the experience since anticipating where things were headed proved impossible. Whether it succeeded or failed, something this huge would have been covered since achievement and sensationalism both sell. My having a complete blind spot could only mean one thing: the event ended with an anticlimactic whimper. Then why did Wolf choose to tackle the subject?

The answer is simple: nobody knew what to call it. Some said it was a success purely because the eight “biospherians” emerged from their airtight vivarium with their lives intact. Some said it was a failure because the rules as stated at the onset weren’t necessarily followed. If the whole endeavor was truly meant to test the efficacy of self-sustained environments knowing we’d one day have to leave Earth and colonize other planets, wouldn’t tampering with the veracity of that self-sustainability render the attempt moot? All it took was public opinion to side with the scientists who laughed about the Biosphere 2 even being built without those assurances for the man who bankrolled it (Ed Bass) to scramble for ways to insure its profitability beyond implementation in space.

That’s moving a bit too far too soon, though. Talking about the Biosphere 2 itself is a bit too far too soon too. Wolf rightly decides that the story of this one installation will always be incomplete if you don’t rewind and educate viewers on the group of people who thought it up. For that he must take us into the 1960s and introduce John Allen and the Synergia Ranch. He must because this little commune is where everything begins. It’s where the major players first met, where their counterculture eccentricities merged with capitalistic stability, and where their dream of saving the world one community at a time originated. They eventually built a ship, sailed the world, and became amateur experts on a litany of subjects.

The story the surviving members of this friendship (many of whom still live and work on the ranch today) weave about those days is utterly fascinating. The cult allusions are obvious (if unfounded on a purely intellectual level). The God-complex they allowed Allen to wield is indisputable. And the scale of their projects is unimaginable. I spent the first thirty minutes or so wondering how they could afford this madness while also rejecting everything that affording it would force them to accept. It threw a wrench in the idealism because I couldn’t stop thinking about how they were all white and mostly from urbanite families I could then assume provided them the fiscal connections to “escape” a system that those who are actually persecuted never can.

Wolf thankfully supplies the answer as soon as my skepticism cemented and it wasn’t what I expected. Why? Because their benefactor Ed Bass got his money from oil—a fact that’s never approached from a direction beyond its surface objectivity. How did Allen feel about that conflict of interest? How did the others? Bass could call himself an environmentalist all he wanted, but someone had to raise an eyebrow and call bullshit. Right? That nobody appears to have done so only reveals the group’s privilege and naiveté: two things that set the table for everything that occurs next and two things that ensure none of them could earn my sympathy when things begin to fall apart. They invited the wolf in and, honestly, he doesn’t do anything wrong.

Elaborating on that will ruin some of the twists and turns for those like me who go into the film knowing nothing about what happens (including a wild surprise guest at the end). I’ll just say that there might be a way to tell this story without letting me side with Bass. But it’s not going through everything with an unabashedly subjective eye (the people interviewed love Allen and put their hearts, minds, and sweat into Biosphere 2) that only circumstantially touches upon climate change only to take a sharp left into using what happens as a metaphor for our world today being ravaged by Wall Street. Turning this into an allegory only works if they were actually wronged. It only works if their experiment was beyond reproach.

I don’t think Wolf does enough to get the other side’s perspective. Whenever he reveals a gross disservice that went on by the Biosphere team itself, he lets its members shrug it off as not being a big deal or sometimes (in different words) as being “fake news.” That’s not to say that Bass (or the aforementioned surprise guest he enlisted) wasn’t a villain. I’m just saying that he was brought in as a partner with literal ownership over all projects as opposed to Allen’s figurative ownership. He was brought in as a businessman and therefore shouldn’t be faulted because he acted like one. And you can’t retroactively rebrand the Biosphere as being about saving Earth when Allen himself said it was always about living off of it.

Because here’s the thing: the Earth is sustainable. If our current quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is any indication, Earth will survive and even flourish the moment we are gone. What Spaceship Earth seems to want to be then is an exposé on just how destructive we are. It touches upon greed (regardless of whether it should have focused more on Allen’s greed than that of Bass) and spin. It touches upon the lethal power of the media’s ratings. And it touches upon the gross imbalance created by late-stage capitalism. But Wolf renders those truths as bit players in the background of a puff piece about John Allen and the Synergia Ranch. It looks great and does captivate, but it also wrongly absolves their undeniable complicity.

[1] Biospherians (left to right): Jane Poynter, Linda Leigh, Mark Van Thillo, Taber MacCallum, Roy Walford (in front), Abigail Alling, Sally Silverstone and Bernd Zabel posing inside Biosphere 2 in a 1990. Courtesy of NEON
[2] Biosphere 2 exteriors. Courtesy of NEON
[3] Biospherian Linda Leigh and tourists. Courtesy of NEON

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