Spaceship Earth review – a beguiling experiment is curiously dramatised

The true story of science project Biosphere 2 is brought to life in a doc that listens to its subjects but keeps a frustrating distance

“We are hardwired to create cults, in the innovative stage of an organisation.” This chilling truth is laid plain in Spaceship Earth, a curious oddity of a documentary that retells the fascinating lifetime of Biosphere 2, a scientific experiment which built a man-made self-sustained ecosystem, and put eight human beings to live within it.

The film also unravels the complexities of those human beings as members of a cult-like organisation led by the eccentric polymath John Allen. Every individual is concerned with climate change and the fragility of the Earth, but the film juggles an analysis of these warring personalities by focusing more on the threat of the wealthy businessmen circling their good intentions like vultures.

Spaceship Earth isn’t a claustrophobic portrait of what happens when eight people are stuck in a self-contained, repetitive reality. The interview subjects acknowledge how, at the time, media coverage wanted to turn Biosphere 2 into some kind of game show, “a trendy ecological experiment” where you wonder who will make it out alive.

The idea of too many cooks feels apt, both in Biosphere 2 and in Spaceship Earth. These idealistic hippy-type scientists poured their hearts into the experiment, and, as is often the case with any bizarre idea that turns into a film, things went wrong. Unforeseen medical emergencies, an imbalance in the air, and so the experience had to end. But it’s more about Allen, and his business partner Ed Bass, and a crucial third businessman – whose threat becomes obvious as soon as he is named – in terms of remembering the experience.

These men are pointed to, but not quite probed to the extent that you’d want. The interview subjects recall their experiences, explain what went wrong, but choose when a topic is too difficult to talk about. Soon you begin to wonder: yes, but why? It makes sense for these people to be keeping some cards close to their chests, but can be frustrating for the viewer when you have the follow-up questions on the tip of your tongue and no one is actually asking them.

The film says as much as it wants to, and stays sympathetic with those who went through this baffling experience. There’s a wistfulness to it, framing how people can fall out of love with their own ideas, how individual intentions can be stymied by greed, narcissism, a cult mentality that pushes for extremes rather than preservation.

Did they change the world? Can anyone? Spaceship Earth accepts failures, both intimate and corporate, and rather than answering all the questions, it marvels at just how far humankind has come – even if there is always a long way to go.

Spaceship Earth is available on VOD platforms from 10 July.

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