The 400-Word Review: Spaceship Earth

By Sean Collier

May 9, 2020

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For a movie about a high-tech science experiment, “Spaceship Earth” spends a lot of time with hippies making avant-garde theater.

That, surprisingly, is kind of the point. The film unpacks the odd circumstances that gave rise to Biosphere 2, an ambitious if deeply flawed science project that unfolded nearly 30 years ago in the Arizona desert.

The part you know, if you have an excellent memory of ’90s historical footnotes: In 1991, eight scientists moved into a (supposedly) self-contained and sealed environment constructed on a 3-acre patch of land in Oracle, Arizona. The mission — aside from publicity and, later, tourist dollars — was to investigate man’s ability to manufacture and maintain artificial biomes, hoping the knowledge gained by these intrepid researchers would one day lead to habitable facilities beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The part you don’t: This was the most extreme possible outgrowth of a hippie commune.

A group of allegedly sober free thinkers was cobbled together by the (kinda) charismatic John P. Allen in the 1960s. They tinkered with geodesic dome construction and collaborative living until Allen got chummy with a Texas billionaire, Ed Bass; the group subsequently started sailing the world on a handmade ship, stopping to construct interesting (but decidedly for-profit) enterprises including a Kathmandu hotel and a London art gallery.

One thing led to another and, in one of the all-time most improbable sequences of one thing leading to another, a biosphere was born.


About half of “Spaceship Earth” is concerned with the exploits of Allen and his chums leading up to the biosphere idea. This section is a bit too reverential; we all appreciate the spirit of the ’60s, but the film is quick to position this troupe as thoughtful heralds of a new age. They could easily be seen as slightly imaginative kids without any practical obligations.

The good stuff kicks in at the one-hour mark, where we climb into Biosphere 2 with the crew and watch things unfold. Conditions go from bad to worse as the science gets junky, the environment gets unsustainable and, in a twist that prompted gasps at Sundance, a famous real-world villain takes over.

“Spaceship Earth” isn’t as critical (or as juicy) as you’d like it to be. The project remains such a bizarre corner of history, however, that the film is worth a look. And what better time than now? We’ve all unwillingly climbed into our own biospheres.

My Rating: 7/10

“Spaceship Earth” is streaming now in virtual cinemas.



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