Hulu sure knows how to pick its spots. With people all over the world, especially here in the U.S., sheltering at home, the streaming giant releases Spaceship Earth, a documentary about eight people who volunteered to live in Biosphere 2, an enclosed system of plants and animals, for two years. The participants eventually suffer from personal conflicts, malnutrition, and physical injury, but they committed to staying inside for the good of society.
The real subject of Spaceship Earth is not what happens to the brave souls who risked health and sanity inside that massive structure, but the way their mission was distorted from the outside. It was originally the brainchild of a San Francisco theater troupe who expanded their vision beyond Haight-Ashbury. In 1969, they moved to New Mexico and started a sustainable farm. Once that got running, they built a ship and sailed around the world. None were experts, but they believed in themselves. They built a hotel in Timbuktu and started an art gallery in London, all of which were funded by their lone patron, a Texas millionaire with a countercultural streak.
Their decision to build Biosphere 2 was a natural extension of their prior work, an ecological experiment that, through the lens of today’s hyper-focused climate activism, feels strangely vague, at once an effort to learn how to live sustainably on this planet and to prepare us for starting an indoor ecosystem on another. Within the group, any uncertainty was overpowered by John P. Allen, the group’s visionary leader, who they trusted unfailingly. After all, he had never steered them wrong before.
Through modern-day interviews and intimate footage from the era, the filmmakers tap into the appeal of the era’s counterculture. The troupe’s brew of idealism and action is intoxicating, and the early sequences, in which they conquer one massive project after another with a breezy, “what can go wrong” attitude, are among the film’s most enjoyable. You may find yourself so swayed by their collective charisma that you are undeterred by how slyly their anarchic ethos is swallowed up by capitalism. The Biosphere project was budgeted at $200 million, a PR firm was hired to promote the project, and group members soon were working in offices and wearing business attire. “It was quite corporate,” says one. “I even wore nail polish.”
It’s a satisfying story for cynical times, but one we have heard many times before. At the onset, the troupe’s joyful collectivism is a balm for our current day isolation. When it all goes wrong, as the project is sabotaged by a sensationalist media and the irresistible charms of capitalism, it feels like the truth is kicking in. Watching ’60s idealism get quashed by late-century commercialism is a national pastime, and while Spaceship Earth offers some shiny new details, its reluctance to uncover anything new in its themes holds it back from greatness. If only the filmmakers were as bold as their subjects.
Spaceship Earth begins streaming May 8 on Hulu.