Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
It’s another week for revenue-sharing between distributors and theaters—and in this case, Scarecrow Video, too. Neon (distributor of Parasite) has Spaceship Earth playing online, with a portion of the proceeds going to benefit Scarecrow, if you watch through this pathway.
Here’s my review of this fascinating, flabbergasting picture.
Like any good documentary, Spaceship Earth raises a host of subjects alongside its central focus. One that seems timely in this case is the overpowering allure of the cult.
I don’t mean the fun kind of cult, like an irresistible urge to quote The Big Lebowski. I mean the apparently bottomless need for people to latch onto a leader, a dream, a conspiracy theory, and ride it all the way to their own destruction. Writing from the standpoint of 2020, this tendency has become titanic in its reach, a place where feelings that could formerly be channeled off into minor weirdness has become tribalism that threatens society. And even if cultiness shows itself in a smaller and more benign way in Spaceship Earth, you still see it flickering through the movie’s overall story.
That story has reaches its peak in the 1991 experiment called Biosphere 2, a wacky episode in which eight people entered a (more or less) airtight environment built in the Arizona desert for two years. The project alone would be a fine subject for a movie, but Spaceship Earth gives us the rich backstory, which involves a bunch of hippies and daydreamers and entrepreneurs who followed the charismatic lead of their guru, John Allen.
Allen has the defined, carved-from-granite manner of a deep-thinking hermit or a Beat poet, but most of all he comes across as the kind of theater director whose exhaustive theories about performance are handed out in mimeographs every Friday, to be memorized by the cast members before Monday. His group evolved out of a conscious desire to make a difference, and their activities included zany people’s-theater performances, the building of a seaworthy ocean vessel in which they sailed the world for a few years, and the founding of a commune.
As idealistic as the group members are about their causes, the film allows a few questions to surface about the cultier aspects of the whole thing. Nevertheless, I don’t mean to emphasize that part of it; there is much to admire in the optimism of these folks, an optimism which, astonishingly, made the Biosphere 2 extravaganza a reality. Director Matt Wolf depicts this project’s high hopes and glaring mistakes (and its deep pockets, courtesy of Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass). Wolf is fortunate that the Allen folks were documenting their own existence from the beginning; there’s a huge amount of colorful footage of their escapades even before the media turned its hungry attention to Biosphere 2.
The way media attention could be manipulated and soured is another great side-topic in this movie, as is the untrustworthy nature of big money—there’s a shocking late entrance by a poisonous real-life figure who’s become much more famous in recent years, a guest-star appearance too good, or too awful, to spoil. Yes, this documentary ends up being about everything, good and bad, even if its hook is a science-fiction novelty that already seems like something from an unfamiliar age.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.