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Spaceship Earth (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 27, 2023


Featuring John Allen, Tony Burgess, Freddy Dempster, Kathy Dyhr, Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, Linda Leigh, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone and Larry Winokour.

Directed by Matt Wolf.

Distributed by Neon. 115 minutes. Not Rated.

Streaming science nerd documentary alert: Spaceship Earth is now available for online streaming through your local Art House cinema – for me The Hiway Theater in Jenkintown and the Philadelphia Film Society.

Spaceship Earth tells the odd, nerdy cult-like story of the creators and crew for Biosphere 2the 1991 prototype “space colony” located in the Arizona desert, where eight scientists were locked inside together for two years to simulate the self-sustaining community that would be needed for future space colonization on the moon and Mars.

The film is science fiction meets performance art, weaving a compelling story of innovation and synergy that is eventually spoiled by money and likely other unscrupulous underlying causes (a Steve Bannon twist!) in spite of the team’s forward thinking and financial planning.

Rewind 25 years, and Spaceship Earth chronicles how the innovative team got together under the leadership of the “charismatic” John Allen. I put the charismatic in quotes because while we don’t see much charisma in Allen’s aged onscreen presence, the adjective is used so frequently in the film regarding Allen that it could be its own drinking game. Allen onscreen appears withdrawn, what is left after a beacon of creativity and leadership has been forcibly ousted from his intellectual property.

Spaceship Earth reminds us of the need to act on those precious moments where all things are possible.

And John Allen’s team did.

He gathered similarly innovative men and women together in late 1960’s San Francisco, a time and place where communes and cult-like collectives seemed commonplace, but with a drug-free intention to be a long-lasting team. They became the “Theater of Possibilities” exploring their ideas in performance. In 1969, they departed corrupt San Francisco and opened Synergia Ranch – where many of the team remain today. On the ranch, they explored and taught themselves not only land skills, but architecture, business, and film making.

The team was always looking to “increase the challenge” and in 1974, they headed to Berkeley, California where they began construction of a ship. Farfetched, right? But they did it. 19-year-old Margaret Augustine became the ship architect and they built Heraclitus, taught themselves celestial navigation, and sailed around the world.

It’s literally staggering to watch this team of people working to create and live out their dreams.

Before the internet.

The film then goes on to discuss funding. It takes money to turn dreams into reality. The team partnered with Ed Bass, a Texan with a spirit of exploration and billionaire family money. Together, they built a hotel in Kathmandu, an art gallery in London, land in the Australian Outback, and toured the world with their theater company. They experientially exposed their minds to the world and then set out to sustain it. In the early 80’s, they became (and continue to be) deeply concerned about climate change, its effect on the Earth and humanity.

And in 1986, they began rethinking what is possible, visualizing an off-planet colony. Enter Biosphere 2.

Spaceship Earth is a time capsule documentary that watches like an intelligent person’s conspiracy theory video. While at times crazy, the film celebrates the team’s many successes and growth from failures. The story is believable and inspiring – a reminder of humanity’s spirit of exploration and adventure.

I have been lucky to have known and worked with people with this level of innovation. I never would have made the cut for John Allen’s self-starter team – I am and will forever be support staff but have an eye for those with the dreams and follow through to make a difference.

Spaceship Earth is a documentary worth watching if you are interested unbridled creativity… but trigger warning, it really does include a Steve Bannon twist that has left a nasty film in my viewing experience. But have no fear, he is clearly painted as the villain we know he is. Only time and karma will tell his full story.

Bonnie Paul

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: May 10, 2020.

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