Sunday, June 7, 2020

Spaceship Earth Is a Documentary That Could Have Used More Humanity

The title of Spaceship Earth refers to Biosphere 2, an enclosed location in the Arizona desert that replicates Earth's ecosystem. This domain has been created in an attempt to create a sustainable environment that could be used on other planets. You could just build another biosphere on Mars and, presto! You've got a location where astronauts can live without any problem! A group of people are placed inside Biosphere 2 to see if it's possible for human beings to survive just in here, with no contact with the outside world, for two years. If they succeed, both the participants of this project and its backers believe they will have made a scientific breakthrough.

Though the Biosphere 2 project got underway in the early 1990s, Spaceship Earth actually begins in the late 1960s. A number of the people who would end up staying inside Biosphere 2 for two years first came together during the 1960s under the leadership of John Allen. United by a desire to change the world, they all lived together in an isolated compound where they followed Allen's orders to the letter. If Allen wanted everybody to put on a play, they put on a play. If Allen wanted everybody to read a book, they'd read a book. And if Allen got this idea in his idea to build a gigantic ship, well, everyone's going to spend a couple years building a grand ship.

Was this group a cult? Well, this gaggle of people sure fulfills many of the qualities one would associate with a cult, including the undying loyalty to their leader John Allen. Much of the first third of Spaceship Earth is dedicated to just people recounting their stories of working for Allen and the extravagant endeavors they participated in. There are some interesting tales to be found here but much of this section of Spaceship Earth doesn't grab one's interest. This can be chalked up to a lack of conflict between Allen and his followers as well as how little personality is afforded the individual participants in this group.

Though Spaceship Earth at first is just a bunch of stories about misadventures held under the leadership of John Allen, it coalesces into something more compelling once the plans for Biosphere 2 enter the proceedings. This entire idea is so outlandish that, once people went inside to actually live there for two years, it was only a matter of time before chaos ensued. Stories about the difficulties of surviving inside the Biosphere don't just provide hardship for the people trapped within. Turmoil is also a chance for Spaceship Earth to imbue its real-life subjects with individual personalities. Particularly memorable is a 60-year-old fitness nut convinced he's found the key to living to 120-years-old.

Meanwhile, in the outside world, intriguing conflicts also emerge, many of them stemming from John Allen's personality. Especially fascinating is an anecdote from an employee of Allen's who speaks out against how Allen has been treating the people inside Biosphere 2. Allen's eventual response to this employee is totally shocking and had me laughing in disbelief. An eventual plot twist involving the surprisingly prominent presence of a figure close to the current President of the United State allows Spaceship Earth to close out its story on a bittersweet note. Such a tone would be more effective if the participants in the Biosphere 2 experiment had been better built-up to this point but it's hard not to feel remorse for a movie mourning science lost.

Director Matt Wolf is the one at the helm of Spaceship Earth. His execution of this story is fine but the paint-by-numbers execution of the story means that Spaceship Earth doesn't really have much of its own personality. I did like how he manages to dig up so much archival footage from so many different sources, including videos from board meetings between Allen and other investors in Biosphere 2. The nifty backgrounds that reside behind the interview subjects of Spaceship Earth also lend an appropriately futuristic aesthetic to scenes of these people recounting their experiences within a place on Earth that seemed to be on a whole other planet.

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