No, “Spaceship Earth” is not a tale of the ride inside the sphere right at the front of EPCOT, and if some of the architecture in Matt Wolf’s documentary looks similar to that of EPCOT’s Future World, it has to do with the influences that helped create both. This particular “Spaceship Earth” is about the Biosphere 2 experiment, or, if you’re of a certain age, “That thing where the people lived inside that building for two years without coming out.” And, if you’re of the same age but a slightly different mindset, you might answer “Yeah, I remember, Pauly Shore made that comedy that was kind of about that, ‘Bio-Dome.’”
All of that is to say that Biosphere 2, this building which housed eight individuals for two years and from which they were supposed to get all of their food and oxygen and everything else needed to sustain life, and some of the ideas that led to it, hit the zeitgeist in just the right way so that now, roughly 20 years after the experiment began, it remains an easily recalled moment in history. The goal of Matt Wolf’s documentary is to offer insight into what led to the project (it was just one of a series of ideas from the same group) and the fallout from the biosphere.
The documentary is utterly fascinating. Much like the project itself, it doesn’t fully succeed and kind of seems to change the rules along the way, but it is still fascinating.
“Spaceship Earth” spends roughly its first half discussing the antecedents to the project. Here, the audience learns all about the group of idealists founded by John Allen in the 1960s and the various projects they took on all over the world. Although Allen was not one of the eight individuals who would be in Biosphere 2, he was a driving force (perhaps the driving force) behind the project. Not the money man, Allen was the idea man, the guy pushing his group to do bigger and better things.
It is in the film’s second half that we get to see just what happened inside Biosphere 2, what happened outside the building at the same time and influenced the inside, and what happened when the project drew to a close.
Wonderfully for Wolf, there is an incredible amount of recordings from the time (whether that time is the 1960s; later, during the Biosphere 2 project; or any other point). He makes excellent use of these, transporting the viewer back to those days to show us, through first-hand footage and accounts, what was going on. Wolf then combines these with new interviews from participants and does a tremendous job of getting the audience to the point where the Biosphere 2 project began to take shape. The players are clear, motivations are present, and the logic of it all feels understandable.
Wolf takes the time he needs with this portion of the movie, refusing to jump into the Biosphere 2 project until he is good and ready. The audience could be forgiven at some points for not remembering that the movie is even building to Biosphere – Allen’s group of freethinkers and their story is hugely compelling.
That said, “Spaceship Earth” does not take the time it needs to do justice to the project that is, according to its own synopsis, the point of the whole thing – Biosphere 2. There is a question brought up as to whether Allen’s group is really out there for the betterment of the world or some sort of cult. There are questions brought up about changes made to the Biosphere 2 project along the way. There are questions about how the Biosphere 2 project was taken away from Allen and company after the eight person team completed their two year stint. Wolf answers none of them.
For a movie which takes time and appropriately lays the foundation for the story, this skirting over the main issues with Biosphere 2 is surprising. It is not that Wolf needs to provide answers to the questions, but they barely feel explored. The entire end of the film feels rushed. One interviewee refuses to discuss the fallout from Biosphere 2 and although Allen is questioned on camera about the history of the group and project, we never see him focus on the end of it all either.
One can only speculate as to why Wolf has opted to go this route and there simply isn’t enough information present to do that with any form of accuracy; with any way to substantiate any assertions, and that makes the speculation itself both necessary and still unworthy. We walk away from “Spaceship Earth” unfulfilled. It is a tale which is begun beautifully and documented so thoroughly… to a point. After that point—and it is right then at that moment when it is so very important to keep the same tack—the movie increases its pace, rushing headlong to the end, leapfrogging the necessary explanations.
Those looking to find out how John Allen built a group of individuals who eventually decided to embark on the Biosphere 2 project will be well pleased with “Spaceship Earth.” Those looking to understand the reasons for the project, the reasons why it was okay to change the project midway through, what information was gleaned from the project, and even the man himself will be disappointed.
It is, as stated earlier, completely fascinating. It is just that the tale being told is what fascinates in the first half and the way in which it isn’t told is what fascinates in the second. It may be worth watching, but only as a starting point for serious inquiry into the project and group.
photo credit: Neon