Review: An out-of-this-world experiment in 'Spaceship Earth'

This image released by Neon shows Dr. Roy Walford (front) with candidates for the Biosphere 2 Project from the documentary “Spaceship Earth.”

Editor’s note: With movie theaters closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, Micheal Compton’s reviews will focus on films available for streaming or on demand.

Before Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin went into a “Biodome” there was Biosphere 2, a real-life structure in Arizona that was designed to replicate the Earth’s ecosystem.

Matt Wolf’s new documentary, “Spaceship Earth,” explores Biosphere 2 and the people behind it.

It’s a compelling experience that proves to be even more bizarre than Shore’s film career. The stranger-than-fiction documentary features the people who used the structure to conduct a science experiment that became more bizarre with each passing day.

The experiment in question happened in 1991 when eight people (led by John Allen) became real-life guinea pigs. They agreed to be locked inside the structure that was a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem for two years, living only off the resources inside.

It was an experiment designed to study the ecosystem while also providing a potential blueprint for colonization in space.

The project went awry almost immediately, with the artificial system collapsing from within – ranging from the loss of oxygen to the loss of nearly all the species that were put inside with the eight humans.

Each loss only added to PR problems, which led to behind-the-scenes infighting that the eight people inside where completely oblivious to because they were isolated from the outside world.

“Spaceship Earth” culminates with the failed experiment, but Wolf also lays the stage for what is to come by allowing the audience to get to know these eight people and what they hoped to accomplish – and how they were forever changed by their experience.

Using archival footage, Wolf constructs the backstory behind Allen, who some media outlets saw as nothing more than a glorified cult leader, and how a group of counter-culture environmental activists he led in the late 1960s ultimately became the basis for this vision of Biosphere 2 (backed by eccentric billionaire Ed Bass).

The documentary also explores the backstories of the other seven members of the mission – including Abigail Alling, Margret Augustine and Tony Burgess – allowing the audience to understand why they would agree to be isolated from the rest of society for two years and how the experience changed them forever.

Their stories are engaging as Wolf interweaves the footage with interviews with the crew, creating a film that allows them to set the record straight.

It’s clear these people were just trying to make the world a better place, but “Spaceship Earth” proves that even the best intentions can go awry when man tries to re-create nature.

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