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maryann johanson | watching movies at home

Spaceship Earth documentary review: under the dome, and under a scrutinous eye

Spaceship Earth green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Was Biosphere 2 scientific adventure or eco-entertainment? This is a gripping portrait of the billionaire’s folly/performance-art project, a hippie SF soap opera with unsettling resonance for today.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good hippie science adventure
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

I remember the whole Biosphere 2 thing in the 1990s, but I don’t remember all the open scandal and public drama surrounding it that Spaceship Earth delves into. A gripping portrait of the billionaire’s folly–slash–performance-art science project, Matt Wolf’s documentary has a fascinating duality to it: it’s a tragic failing of a laudable utopian fantasy, and it’s a risible train wreck of hubris and overconfidence. It’s a hippie science-fiction soap opera with a surprising — and unsettling — resonance for today, more than a quarter of a century later.

By the time eight bionauts entered the (supposedly) self-sustaining giant terrarium in the Arizona desert in 1991, the idea had been kicking around its dreamy yet pragmatic and forward-looking instigators for decades. Wolf — whose next film would be the extraordinarily oddball Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — assembles an an amazing array of vintage footage, apparently much of it shot by one of the members of the theater-art-science collective borne of late-1960s San Francisco, that was all about exploring integrated human experience. They didn’t take drugs, though, a surviving member explains; they were just misfits, weirdos, nonconformists: “We called ourselves Synergists.” They’re an appealing bunch, especially in our cynical times, when optimism about the future seems impossible.

Spaceship Earth

Might be gonna write a novel called Rainbows Over Mars

Inspired by the likes of Buckminster Fuller and William S. Burroughs, and financed by a Texas oil magnate, Biosphere 2 was meant to be an experimental precursor to future human settlements on the Moon and Mars. It didn’t go quite as planned, as Spaceship Earth reminds us via media reports from the time, which turned from gushing to scathing on a dime, as “one crisis after another” for the team inside reared up.

Was Biosphere 2 an adventure with genuine scientific value, or merely “trendy ecological entertainment”? There are so many twists and turns in the tale, including a late villainous arrival from an unexpected figure now seen as notably notorious. I love the fascinating audacity of idealists here who dared to think big, and the portrait of what is often considered dismissively “counterculture” as absolutely essential to the culture itself. In the world of the Spaceship Earth pioneers, life is exploratory, science is art, and bonkers boldness is an agent of change. These are wonderful messages that land very satisfyingly right now.


Spaceship Earth is available to stream via Neon’s Virtual Cinema and Alamo on Demand, which support local arthouses during the coronavirus lockdown.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.



green light 4.5 stars

watch at home

Spaceship Earth (2020) | directed by Matt Wolf
US/Can release: May 08 2020 (VOD)

MPAA: not rated

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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