Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Movie Review: Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth **** / *****
Directed by: Matt Wolf.
One of things documentary film is best at, is delving into the details of stories that were only superficially covered by the media when they happened. The story of Biosphere 2 is one such story. It was a relatively big deal in the early 1990s – about a group of 8 scientists, who would lock themselves into what was supposed to be a self-contained biosphere from two years, living off of what they could produce, breathing the air it produced, etc. The biosphere was made up of different pods – each a different type of environment, from the rain forest to the ocean to the desert, etc. Questions about the scientific validity of it all dogged the project throughout – and not without reason. It was bankrolled by a billionaire, who thought eventually, he could make money off of the findings. The group behind it got its start as one of those New Wage commune (some say cults) from the 1970s. They weren’t always up front with everyone about what was going on – they didn’t reveal the presence of a CO2 scrubber for example, or cop to it when one of the members had to leave for surgery, and returned with some outside materials not originally part of the experiment. So, soon after the experiment was over, it was forgotten about – and now most people don’t even remember it happened in the first place.
Directed by Matt Wolf, Spaceship Earth has access to a treasure trove of archival material, and contains interviews with most of the surviving players in the drama. It is perhaps too sympathetic to the overall project – you miss the presence of some outside scientists, who perhaps could offer a differing perspective than those involved, who try to downplay and minimize the shortcuts taken. But it offers a more complete view of exactly what happened, and why – and why perhaps it should not have been forgotten.
The project was funded by billionaire Ed Bass, and was the brainchild of John Allen – the charismatic leader of that commune, who was always restless, wanting to move onto the next thing. Some have called Allen a cult leader, and its easy to see why that is – but if he was, it wasn’t the kind of cult leader that leads to darkness – no money is being bilked from anyone other than Bass, who willingly gave it up, there are no mass marriages, or cutting people off from their families, etc. People willingly followed Allen wherever he wanted to go – because where he wanted to go was someplace interesting. The people still around still have mainly warm feelings for Allen – who is here as well in interviews. While they all admit mistakes were made, they are still proud of what they did.
And it is an interesting story to be sure. Even if there were a few cheats, the people inside did live off of what they could grow themselves – they got sick of beats, which they could grow a lot of, and birthday cakes were always made from bananas. They may have had a CO2 scrubber, but it clearly didn’t make things effortless – there were times when the CO2 spiked dangerously high, and people got exhausted quickly. They all lost weight. There were personality conflicts, and arguments, as you may expect amongst any 8 people trapped in an enclosed space for two years – especially when you consider the kind of personalities who would willingly sign up for this kind of project.
Overall, the film is a fascinating look at this experiment – and that precisely what it was, an imperfect, experiment, looking to see just exactly what would happen putting people in these kind of conditions – and what would happen to the different ecosystems, etc. It’s a fascinating story – and one that most modern audiences either don’t know at all, or kind of half remember from when it happened.  As a film, it’s pretty standard – an archival footage, talking heads – style doc. But it’s a fascinating story, well-told. And one that remains relevant today for a host of reasons.

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