Film Reviews

Spaceship Earth review: Dir. Matt Wolf (2020)

Much like the darkest reaches of the Universe, Spaceship Earth has a lot more going on than you initially anticipate. On the surface level, it’s a true story about a group of visionaries who, in 1991, sealed and socially isolated themselves inside an artificial biosphere in Arizona, that was designed to copy our very own ecosystem, and when you dig deeper to reveal their pioneering Scientific and Anthropological approach to their ideals, they were truly revolutionary. But, as you might expect, with many futurists, it comes with a flipside of allegations and suspicion.

While the overall premise of Spaceship Earth will lead to this huge experiment, director Matt Wolf first takes us back into the 1960s with archival footage, telling us the detailed story of how the group met and developed their theories from those involved. Because they stemmed from the free-thinking age of San Francisco in the late 60s, it could be easy to dismiss it all as drug-induced dreaming, with ideas beyond reality but the key difference with this group? They left the City, they say they avoided the drug culture, at the time, and developed their ideas to create everything they wanted to from a full-working self-sufficient farm in New Mexico, and then an actual sea-faring ship that was built from scratch and sailed them across the world.

The inventive side of those participating isn’t really questioned but Wolf’s documentary also doesn’t hide from exploring both their funding and the continual suggestions this was some form of cult, led by the calm, charismatic and driven John Allen. While Allen was the fulcrum for everyone else involved, it’s also clear that the group had their personal ideas as well, they just needed to be harnessed and acted upon. We learn of their pro-active nature, wanting to find a way to lead a better world, and how they merged Science, Art and Theatre (with The Theatre of all Possibilities founded by Allen, Kathelin Gray and Marie Harding) to stay creative and innovative.

Starting with small projects, they soon embarked on bigger ones, such as the aforementioned self-sufficient farm, and a ship called the Heraclitus. This ship is a brilliant example of an era where people could just try something without really being judged. If this were now, there would be news reports from the start, social media chaos and it’s likely it would be distracting but what they actually achieved (and is still working today) is somewhat awe-inspiring. On their ship, they declared they weren’t a commune or a cult, but a corporation and – in truth – they literally worked their way around the world, setting up businesses as they go (Paris, London, Venice, Kathmandu and more) and continuing their adventure from the earnings – as well as funding from some rich folk, which is explored more and you’ll have to watch to see that setup.

Once you get to the development of ‘Biosphere 2’, named as such because it’s representing a second Earth and reminded me of my local Eden Project today (also see the 1972 film Silent Running), you actually have respect for those involved. While it’s difficult to ignore the suggested ‘cult’ element of events, especially because John Allen is so controlling, there is still freedom in thought and even though they were confined by the building, they all seem to want to be there. Spaceship Earth is also a stark warning to the future, from the past. Early in the 1980s, they were Scientifically pushing the eco-agenda, pretty much predicting everything that has happened now but because of how they were seen, it’s very possible their theories weren’t taken as seriously as they should have been.

Wolf’s creation of a full narrative is riveting, and, for me, I didn’t feel anything was sensationalised and keeps a fine balance, letting the audience make up its own mind about the process of the entire outfit. You’ll see first-hand the early stages of mainstream news coverage, and how things can be made up (sadly you’ll even see Steve Bannon, which explains a lot about right now), how the group were aware of their own ‘theatre’, and how deeply impressive and professional these individuals were, considering the restrictions of their time.

But as we know, good things cannot last forever, that’s just a fact of reality and how the circle itself tends to work. As people grow tired, as the biodome doesn’t always work as it should, cracks start to appear, resentment develops and the mind starts to question not only their own decisions, but those around you. There’s no question that Spaceship Earth shows all the highs and lows of a completely unique group of individuals, complete with changing decades, media, computers, influence and politics.

Wolf’s film, complete with those original people, is a very timely documentary. Be witness to those who are willing to sacrifice everything they’ve got to try and make the world a better place but also, on the flipside, be dragged down by outside influences and the doubt that lingers within all our own minds. From start to finish, this is absolutely fascinating.

Spaceship Earth is available to watch now On Demand from Dogwoof

It also comes to DVD on 10th August, order now

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