For the entirety of 1991 through 1993, eight individuals were sealed in what would be a completely self-sustaining vivarium in an attempt to make strong scientific headway in the prospect of space colonization. Director Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth is an ambitious blend of archival news coverage, 16mm footage spanning 25 years and talking head interviews centering around the oft-forgotten Biosphere 2 project.
Yet for a documentary so laser-focused on the intricacies of this dynamic group of “Biospherians” and the counterculture mentality of the ’60s that inspired them, there is little examination of space colonization as manifest destiny and who would be granted the opportunity to start anew if Earth—referred to in the film as Biosphere 1—is ultimately made uninhabitable by the very humans who populate it.
“What we’re upset [about] is that there’s no multiculturalism inside,” says an unnamed young Black man visiting Biosphere 2 in an archival interview. He stands among a group of other young Black people; a young woman by his side chimes in, playfully: “I would like to know what a young Black woman from Brooklyn would do in a biosphere, huh?”
This short clip, enmeshed among other interviews with tourists visiting Biosphere 2 in the remote Arizona desert as the experiment percolates behind glass walls, is presented almost as a cut-away gag when, really, it serves as one of the boldest questions brought up during Spaceship Earth about the nature of colonizing. Where, exactly, do those whose ethnic and cultural roots have been irreparably altered by Western colonization fit in amid a new frontier of space exploration?
It’s true that inhabiting a desolate planet and creating a livable habitat from scratch does have different implications than displacing, enslaving or committing genocide against an area’s population in order to exploit their resources and plant a flag. But there would undoubtedly be a deep social inequality highlighted by who would be chosen to repopulate in space after the Earth is left barren.
Much of the history of the individual Biospherians, and their varied experiences at the Synergia Ranch commune in New Mexico before their involvement in the project, reflects a nomadic attitude and a desire to ravage what the world has to offer. It culminates in the building of a ship and traversing the world by sea, then eventually combing the Earth’s habitats in order to curate flora and fauna to replicate the many terrains of the globe for Biosphere 2. It’s this dual assumed identity of vagabond and world-builder that makes the Biospherian plight so interesting, as they both desire to have complete control over their own fate yet aspire to have a hand in the construction of the future of humanity.
“I was a huge space nut when I was a kid,” says Biospherian Sally Silverstone in a present-day interview. “I loved the idea of colonizing other planets. I loved science fiction movies where people were all living under glass domes and, you know, growing their own food.”
But does humanity inherently deserve to exist in the face of ecological collapse? Especially if the large-scale perpetrators of this environmental apocalypse are wealthy and well-connected enough to reserve a spot on the space colony?
The inclusion of clips that directly address race in Spaceship Earth are clearly a conscious decision. But it’s almost confounding that among all of these brilliant ideas about nature, community and the self-preservation of humanity espoused by those involved in the Biosphere 2 project, there is not one honest insight about what the future might look like when it comes to environmental collapse and the largely black and brown communities that it will be most affected on Biosphere 1.
While the film does play into a colonial fantasy, the lovingly shot footage that comprises it—especially what was captured by the Biospherians while sealed in their glass terrarium for two years—conveys a deep adoration for human life and the natural world that sustains it. But a project in self-sustainability cannot be coupled with corporate money, which was made harshly relevant to the Biospherians when fervent climate change denier Steve Bannon unexpectedly swooped in as CEO of Biosphere 2 in 1993, ultimately changing the trajectory of what the project can offer humanity from an ecological standpoint.
These individuals once symbolized swelling potential for an environmentally conscious future. Their decades-long expertise combined with an audience that faces impending environmental disaster could have made for an honest discussion about the perilous future of space colonization—and whether we even deserve to be there in the first place. Instead, Spaceship Earth provides us with a keepsake of a moment forgotten by collective memory after the project it depicts was coopted by others to become a resource for climate denial.
Director: Matt Wolf
Stars: John Allen, Linda Leigh, Sally Silverstone, Mark Nelson, Abigail Alling (archival), Margaret Augustine (archival), Tony Burgess, William Dempster, Kathy Dyhr, Ray Walford (archival), Jane Poytner (archival), Taber MacCallum (archival), Mark Van Thillo (archival)
Release Date: May 8, 2020 (Neon)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.