• Nate Adams

Review: Insightful 'Spaceship Earth' documents 1991 Biosphere 2 experiment


Courtesy of NEON

Coming in the age of our quarantine, “Spaceship Earth” highlights the controversial 1991 experiment and unearths the details of life inside Biosphere 2, a study conceived, not by NASA or any other official government agency, but by an eccentric physician named John Allen, a Harvard grad who convinced eight determined professionals to lock themselves inside this makeshift ecosystem for two years. The basis? To provide insight and scientific evidence in case humans needed to live in space.

Being stuck at home never looked so good.

For context, the Biosphere 2 was an attempt to create a self-sustaining atmosphere within a three acre building, anticipating life on another planet, or worse, climate change. That subtext doesn’t get much of the spotlight, leaving some unanswered questions upon finishing the film.

Directed by Matt Wolf, “Spaceship Earth” pieces the film together with interviews of the subjects as well as footage documented by Roy Walford - the group's physician - while inside the dome, providing a dazzling experience for, perhaps, the 90s’ most forgotten cultural touchstone. Be honest, how many folks who grew up in this era actually talk about this? We get to see tidbits inside the Biosphere facilities: including the simulated rain forests, the wetlands, the ocean, and the farm which produced a good portion of what the group would eat. We find out the squad would ferment wine from bananas, and one crew member taught themselves how to make a birthday cake without all the proper and necessary ingredients: sugar, butter, or flour. Beets grew better than just about any other crop and oxygen levels would fluctuate and eventually some had to be pumped in to keep the subjects from dying, tarnishing the experiments credibility in the process.

For some of the film, the question on financing is an interesting one: who would fund such a pricey endeavor? And for what? Turns out, Allen had a billionaire backer in the form of Ed Bass who was instrumental in seeing the experiment through to fruition. Other elements the film fails to validate are the tensions and psychological effects hibernation of this magnitude would have on individuals. Some of the subjects claim they never wanted to leave and were thrilled by the experience, but what about the sexual tension and dynamics that became of the two couples who were selected for the program? It’s also no secret that Allen was a cultist who thrived on manipulation and though Wolf presents that point of view, the segments are short and barely registered for this critic.

We do find out what happens to Allen, and we see the hiring of Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) and how the Biosphere seemingly became a tourist attraction in Arizona, now donated for research to the state university. Bannon’s legacy on the project is more or less forgotten in some circles, because, well, he didn’t really accomplish much. Regardless, “Spaceship Earth” still uncovers a relic from our history and uses archival footage to its advantage, trying the best it can to paint a whole picture. One wishes that Allen - whose interviewed on tape - would have been pressed more about the controversies surrounding the experiment (it came out later that it was not self-sustaining). Nevertheless, it still left a small footprint that’s worth studying and sparked a rare media frenzy for its time. Who knows, if not for the OJ Simpson trial, Biosphere 2 might have been the most talked about event of the 90s’. That and the invention of the DVD.

Grade: B-

Spaceship Earth will begin streaming and offered from select theaters virtually on Friday May 8th.