“John Allen’s genius was helping people realize: it was all theater.”
The dreams of life in space feel all but nostalgic these days. Aside from a select few, we have regrounded our ambitions on Earth. The progress of mankind has spun back around to planetary concerns, ambitions to reset our own climate and to make our own space livable, a stark contrast to the space optimism of prior generations. The goals of the Biosphere 2 project were multifold: to create a new sustainable space with its own ecology; to create a public exhibition of what life on another planet might look like; and to entertain the hell out of onlookers with a bit of mega-expensive and crafty science theater.
Spaceship Earth‘s release, at the time of the greatest global health pandemic of our lifetimes, could not be better for the contents. The premise suggests that there is much good to be done with a little ingenuity if we can just self-isolate and cultivate our own gardens, in a hyper-literal way that would make Candide blush. Voltaire might suggest we ought to develop from the inside with love, to create something good around us, so our external world would match our internal goodness. That is the feeling of the communes proposed herein.
The Biospherians are a select group of practical sciences whom cultivated their gardens all around the world. They traveled broadly and built functional ecological structures and systems that created a continuity of life. Their work is synergistic — throughout the ’80s they ran an ecovillage in New Mexico — a totally self-sustaining commune where they practiced performative arts while becoming fully independent. Then they received a visit from an Ed Bass, a Texas oil magnate who would contribute 150 of the 200 million needed to build a snow-globe version of the Earth, their second Biosphere.
The function of the documentary is to resurface an amazing news story. Quite clearly, it is a one-sided affair, favorable to the Biospherians’ performative science. It is strongly against the other outcomes: the media circus that trivialized the thing if any aspect went awry; the inevitable buy-out by a smarmy Steve Bannon (yes, that one.) It’s largely a project in love with its premise. In this instance, that feels totally fair and well-earned. This is a fascinating project deserving of a rose-colored lens. And why not? At a time where we’re seriously thinking about our less-chosen quarantines, isn’t it really lovely to see a project with major human benefits, where its members choose to spend two whole years locked inside a dome?
The real joy of the doc unfolds when it’s time to enter the Biosphere. The commune have created a really lovely quasi-Earth. We could want to vacation inside it. As a perfectly selected Talking Heads track “This Must Be the Place” plays, life inside the planet is montaged for us. This is when the documentary finds its own synergy, perfectly at home with the material on-screen, director Matt Wolf has found the heart of his project, and his editor David Teague finds exactly the right narrative framing for the whole thing to come together as an expression of new life.
A member of the crew dubs their project “trendy ecological entertainment”. It is the best summation of the documentary. That is exactly what Matt Wolf has created. As the whole experiment is theatrical, it makes great sense as a movie. It’s the kind of quirky fun-spirited documentary that will charmingly fill any evening. Spaceship Earth ought to resonate deeply with the science, arts, and culture communities — that cross-section makes it undeniable. The cinema of space-bound ecology now has another partner after the unheralded masterpiece of Silent Runnings (1972), a documentary where a commune plays out that movie in real life theater. Not everything always goes to plan but the picture’s heart always finds itself exactly in the right place.