Saturday 11 July 2020

New seekers: "Spaceship Earth"

Here's one of those docs where you think you're getting one story, only to be told another, compelling and alarming in its turn. The story you think Spaceship Earth is telling - and which it does eventually tell - is that of an independently financed 1991 experiment that saw eight volunteers shut in a vast Arizona terrarium for two years to investigate how mankind would sustain itself upon any future visit to a foreign planet. The terrarium would be called Biosphere 2 - the Earth itself having provided the prototype. That's the story set up in the opening minutes, and it offers plenty to hook us. Yet director Matt Wolf then flashes back 25 years to show where this big idea developed. It transpires this was the latest and biggest in a series of far-out notions made concrete by the San Francisco-native impresario and science buff John Allen, which started in the late 1960s with the building of a not dissimilar geodesic dome on his ranch as a venue for his theatrical activities; in the 1970s, Allen and his acolytes busied themselves by building a boat from scratch as a means of touring the globe. As in 2018's The Raft, recollections of these grandiose countercultural endeavours are illustrated with gorgeously faded footage of sunkissed truthseekers at work and play in the fields of the Lord; many of those seekers have been lined up to testify as to their experiences. For an hour, Spaceship Earth trumpets the ideal of collectivity, what feeble earthlings can do when they put their heads together and lift as one. Anybody who's spent long enough on the same planet - anyone who's ever had to share a flat, even a lift, with strangers for any length of time - will just be waiting for someone among this band of shiny happy people to break ranks. Needless to say: it happens.

What's immediately apparent and important, however, is that Wolf - whose very fine Teenage screened here in early 2014, and whose fascinating-looking Recorder awaits UK release - is a consummate storyteller: patient, attentive, self-effacing. To some degree, he knows he can trust this material, with its extraordinary level of built-in human interest; as with Big Brother, which emerged at the end of the 1990s, the Biosphere 2 project invited curiosity, sometimes outright nosiness. Every archive clip Wolf sources - from the wide-eyed and breathless local news coverage to the stage show Allen put on to dramatise what might go wrong inside the dome - points to just what a strange and singular venture this was: a green-tinged science project enacted by arty bohemians, and funded by a Texan oilman. (In the 1990s, this is what passed for intersectionality.) The film is alert to the beauty of this new world: you swoon over the footage of the bionauts tilling the land like latter-day Adam and Eves, and it wouldn't surprise me if one photograph of the sun rising over the dome sent some viewers scurrying to book themselves a week or two at Centre Parcs. Yet that balance, the harmony such artefacts suggest, didn't last long. Gradually, Wolf introduces notes of shade, scepticism, outright discord. The most foresighted analysis of the Biosphere 2 project comes via a talking head on the nightly news, interviewed outside the visitors' centre just after the dome was monetised as a tourist attraction: "It's an excellent model for the future, but it won't work. People are too mean."

You don't insert a clip like that unless you intend to deliver on the promise of meanness - and I'm not going to give anything away, but Spaceship Earth duly comes through in that respect. The project was never as transparent in its aims and methods as the dome itself; the media that once gawped at Allen's vision turned; while the scientific element was doomed after a backstage reshuffle that saw the Biosphere put in the care of one of the planet's meanest individuals. Even here, though, Wolf treads lightly, allowing the story and the narratives within it to tell themselves: there's none of the conceptual gimmickry that distracted us in The Raft. In doing so, he achieves a balance of his own. Even as he stitches together footage of the Allen project sputtering and failing, he clears a space for his interviewees to make the valid point that, as with any other failed experiment, we might still learn something from this one; he remains alert to the potential, as well as the pitfalls, lurking within these best laid plans. The bionauts entered the dome keen to demonstrate an alternative, self-sustaining way of life, and emerged clutching altogether forlornly to the ragged remnants of a cautionary tale: how they had something nice, wonderful, even idyllic around them for some while, and - through meddling and bickering, dishonest practice and outright negligence - they contrived to mess it up beyond easy repair. Which species does that remind you of? The story you think you're getting in Spaceship Earth is that of Biosphere 2; the story it's actually telling, you realise, is that of Biosphere 1.

Spaceship Earth is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and Amazon Prime.

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