In 1991, eight scientists voluntarily entered isolation for two years inside Bioshpere 2, a microcosm of the world meant to determine how humans might survive in outer space. The idea for the biosphere sprouted from the worry of climate change and environmental collapse. John Allen, a systems ecologist, engineer, metallurgist, adventurer, and writer, invented and was the director or research for Biosphere 2.
The new film Spaceship Earth, directed by Matt Wolf, spends a little too much on Allen’s backstory as an innovator that wanted to do everything. For a good half of the film, we watch Allen and his friends move from project to project, including building a ship they will eventually sail around the world, before they become interested in closed ecological systems.
It’s then a little difficult to understand the controversy of Biosphere 2, once we eventually get to it. It’s the film’s strongest segment, and offers some good insight on how media frenzies can snowball and government oversight can cause a total collapse of the original vision for a project. Infighting between members of the Biosphere 2 team — the ones in isolation as well as the ones running operations from the outside — feel glossed over for the most part, despite how much it influences the controversy, or rather, the many controversies of the project. Those controversies include the holding back of information to the public by John Allen and the operations team, the dissenters in the scientific community writing the project off as science fiction, and the few instances the seal of the dome had to be broken over the course of the two years.
However, archival footage of the team of eight inside the biosphere show the wonder and idealism of a project like Biosphere 2. In that sense, seeing the origins of John Allen and his team living in a commune, exploring art, science, math, stories, and how humans can work together to create something incredible is a culmination worthy of the backstory. The film struggles in making those innovations feel triumphant in the face of conflict, when it only half-heartedly explores that conflict.
What the film does make clear is how much a group of people can accomplish by working together. If you want to change the world, you can’t do it by yourself. Spaceship Earth does right by its main subjects in that sense, perhaps a little too much. After all, it’s going to take more than just your friends to make things happen.