Spaceship Earth




A film about an extraordinary project and what preceded and followed it.

Spaceship Earth

The title chosen for this documentary by Matt Wolf is intended as an indication that its chief focus will be on an enterprise undertaken in the Arizona desert in the 1990s. There is nothing misleading in that since Biosphere 2 which was built there in 1991 is indeed made central but, even so, Wolf's film covers much more than that. Indeed, its first third deals mainly with events during the previous twenty-five years. This is not inappropriate since Biosphere 2, a huge laboratory designed as a replica of earth's ecosystem, was largely the brainchild of John Allen who in the preceding years had built up a group of friends and followers. But it was with the two-year project in Arizona undertaken as an environmental experiment and as a test of life conditions in outer space that they hit the headlines, not least the eight of them - four men and four women - chosen to be sealed within Biosphere 2 and linked to the outside world only by phone and video. Inside with them were selected plants and species, a fact that encouraged comparisons with Noah's Ark.


In a film which features a lot of archive material both national and personal, we do begin with a pre-credit sequence from 1991, but that is immediately followed by a long recap of what had preceded it with Allen himself and Kathelin Gray leading the way and others joining in to describe what they did. Accordingly, we get an insider's take on a very American, very sixties venture which, appropriately enough, started in San Francisco, included stage performances under the banner of 'Theater of All Possibilities', led on to a spell of living off the land in New Mexico and then by 1974 found them searching for a new realm in which to operate. This took the form of a decision to build for themselves an ocean-going ship, the Heraclitus, and, backed by a billionaire, sail off they did on a round the world tour creating businesses en route. "Now we are free" was their proclamation having developed in this way from a commune-style kind of existence (but one devoid of drug-taking) into a unique group which by the 1980s would become concerned with the climate system and the future of the planet. All of this would lead in time to plans for Biosphere 2 as a means of proving the viability of closed ecological systems to support life in outer space and to that end candidates were found and trained, eight of whom would become the chosen ones.


It is one of Allen's followers who refers here to those involved as being wacky and many of those who contribute here became known to each other by odd nicknames ranging from 'Firefly' to 'Horse Shit'. Once it got going publicity about Biosphere 2 would lead to criticism as to just how scientific it all was and furthermore, while initially John Allen had been revered ("a charismatic genius"), he would now be seen by some as akin to the leader of a cult hanging on to his power. At the same time the experience of being enclosed together for two years led to disputes and fall-outs between those inside Biosphere 2.


In effect, Spaceship Earth is a film that falls into three sections. First, there's the history of the group's formation and development which would arguably have gained had Wolf's film been more willing to ask questions. Next, we have the footage about the two years of the experiment. Here problems and conflicting views do emerge, but only superficially despite the film being on the long side (113 minutes). Thirdly, there is the story of what happened after the two years were over and the benefits of the project might have been expected to emerge. For those like myself not previously aware of what was to take place, the course of events described will come as a surprise involving as it does issues of likely political motivation which bring a fresh slant to bear. One might have expected that Wolf's film would have been influenced by this and seen it as an encouragement to dig deeper both into this development and into the reliability of John Allen and his colleagues over the years. Instead, while the material undoubtedly ensures our interest, the final impression given by Spaceship Earth is of a work that is all too ready to stay contentedly on the surface.




Featuring  John Allen, Kathelin Gray, William Dempster, Tony Burgess, Linda Leigh, Marie Harding, Mark Nelson, Kathy Dyhr, Sally Silverstone, Larry Winokur.


Dir Matt Wolf, Pro Matt Wolf and Stacey Reiss, Ph Sam Wootton, Ed David Teague, Music Owen Pallett.


Impact Partners/RadicalMedia/Stacey Reiss productons-Dogwoof Pictures.
113 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 10 July 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12.