Film Review: Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth is a documentary covering the journey of eight individuals who spend two years quarantined in a replica of the earth’s ecosystem called Biosphere 2. Their mission was to explore if they could solve the ecological challenges facing humanity. In fact it was pretty much a trial run to prepare for possibly living on other planets! While quarantine sounded uncomfortably close-to-home, both the sci-fi geek and environmental justice seeker in me was intrigued. Thankfully it turned out to be a captivating watch… even if it was a bit like watching a car crash.

Lift off

With the bulk of footage coming from the early 90s, watching Spaceship Earth is like stepping into another world. It’s a return to the future of yesteryear, in which hoverboards and colonies on Mars felt like a near possibility. The documentary takes time to introduce us to the people behind Biosphere 2. They are a team of dreamers, who simply say ‘why not?’ as they think up creative solutions to environmental issues. It’s impressive what they’re able to achieve. They create stunning structures that look straight out of a sci-fi film and even a mini ocean. That sense of envisioning the future is palpable throughout the documentary’s running time.

The film includes present day interviews with the team and it’s clear their passion for the environment hasn’t dwindled. It’s encouraging to see that people were taking environmental and climate concerns seriously even three decades ago, but troubling that we’re still en route with a climate catastrophe today. Nevertheless we follow the team as they build Biosphere 2 and eventually quarantine themselves inside for two years. Led by charismatic writer and ecologist, John Allen, the project became a huge spectacle around the world. Unfortunately the buzz wasn’t all for good reasons, as the documentary slowly reveals the turmoil underneath it all.

Houston, we have a problem…

As focus turns to life inside Biosphere 2 it becomes clear that recreating earth is as hard as it sounds. The delicate balance needed in any ecosystem is difficult to manage and it’s easy for resources to grow scarce. The team’s diet was definitely limited and the impact was visible as they grew weaker by the day. Furthermore low oxygen levels began to impact the team’s physical and mental health, leading them down a descent into chaos and cabin fever. Interpersonal conflict begins to rupture the team and it’s clear Biosphere 2 is no longer a healthy environment in any sense of the word. The whole project would soon be seen as a misguided venture at best, and a full on cult at worst.

The stress of attempting to recreate earth exacerbated the underlying problems that you can spot before the quarantine even begins. The team of visionaries, while impressive in their tenacity, lacked sufficient knowledge and skill to embark on their journey. Their leader, John Allen, while charismatic, clearly has some unconventional leadership skills, which land further and further on the side of control and manipulation as time goes on. The cracks in the hippy-esque dreamers grow deeper as pressure to succeed and please big investors mounts. You know the fall is coming from the beginning, so it’s not spoiling anything to say that Biosphere 2 failed miserably.

Final verdict

In a world of edge-of-your-seat documentaries featuring characters as whacky as Joe Exotic, Spaceship Earth is a bit more of a sedentary watch. But the slower pace gives more time to reflect on the drama unfolding and the lessons to be learned. The documentary is a reminder that we must take care of our planet – it’s the only we’ll ever have. And as John Allen and his team learnt, the road to environmental disaster can be a long, slow, painful one. Our current climate crisis may not be in its worst possible position yet, but people living in poverty are already feeling the effects of it.

Spaceship Earth highlights the challenge to come together and create a better future for our world and everyone in it. A challenge where we’ll need people to dream, but also to learn the practicalities of how. It’s a task that requires a diversity of people and thought that was sorely lacking in Biosphere 2. We must navigate the hurdles of big business and avoid selling out to those who simply want to cash-in on the idea of sustainability, rather than achieve it. Finally, we must prioritise each other as we do so – maintaining a world that is healthy physically, mentally and spiritually.

While I was expecting to watch a Big Brother-esque look into life inside Biosphere 2, I was met with a slower, but more grand reflection of our world as a whole. Spaceship Earth taught me a bit more than it out-right entertained me, but the lesson was both interesting and definitely needed.

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