Spaceship Earth

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Spaceship Earth Movie Poster Image
Sci-fi gets real in eco-docu about sustainable biodome.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 113 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Amazing things can be accomplished with teamwork. Small groups can be significant engines of change. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Bionauts are depicted as intelligent, sometimes self-taught, mostly humble people who personally sacrifice to create research data that could help fight climate change and/or create colonies in outer space. The people who conceived of Biosphere 2 prove that creativity and business can go together; projects that the group executes are astonishing. 


Story of agriculture worker's finger getting cut off in a machine.


Single uses of "ass" and "f--k." "S--t" is shown written on the screen.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Spaceship Earth is a documentary about the Biosphere 2 ecological research experiment. The point of view is that of the people who created and executed the concept: a commune of actors who followed charismatic leader John Allen. That origin may raise eyebrows, but it's made clear that they deliberately chose not to do drugs (in fact, the only "hippie"-type behavior they engage in is experimental theater). The straightforward storytelling may not capture younger viewers' attention. But if you can get tweens and teens to watch, the film is a testament to teamwork: It centers on young people with little to no experience who were able to build awesome projects all over the world through will, effort, and great leadership. There's a lot to be gained by watching people who believed in themselves and their ideas. Just as much can be learned in hearing why and how the project fell apart -- and, shockingly, who destroyed what the biospherians built. It's that person (the well-known villain of this true story) who utters the movie's only iffy content: a couple of curse words ("f--k," "ass") within one conversation. 

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What's the story?

In 1991, eight "bionauts" participated in a widely publicized ecological experiment. Volunteers with expertise in agriculture, science, and medicine, they decided to step inside a terrarium called the Biosphere 2 -- which replicated the biomes of the world -- and lock the door. The plan was to see whether they could create their own oxygen, food, and water to thrive and survive -- and they mostly could. But they were plagued both by bad press and by doubt about a couple of the shortcuts they took. SPACESHIP EARTH explores how the Biosphere 2 experiment came to be, what went wrong, and what happened to the data from this study.

Is it any good?

Like many true stories, the epic Biosphere 2 experiment is a better legend than actuality. Director Matt Wolf slooowly unwinds how the Biosphere 2 founders came together in the late '60s and lived together on the commune known as Synergia Ranch. The group initially found purpose in acting and then in environmental construction. It's interesting, yes, but it takes a long time to get to the "BUT THEN" moment where it all falls apart, which we know is coming. When it does, it delivers a shocker from left field.

Documentaries always carry a bias, and in Spaceship Earth it's clear that Wolf is on the bionauts' side. The film is a compassionate look at people who tried, who cared, and who just lived life a little differently. They set out to accomplish tremendous goals and usually succeeded. Maybe it's thanks to the kindness of the Synergians and the biospherians, but no one has a bad word to say about anyone else -- and that's refreshing. But, notably, not all the participants were interviewed, and an active thinker has to wonder why. Wolf acknowledges but avoids turning around corners that might lead to shedding negative light on his subjects. For instance, the recounting of a showdown between leaders that involves a Judas-level betrayal ends ... in a hug. Also, several bionauts mention conflict among the group, but Wolf moves on without exploring that angle. It seems like there's more to the story -- but maybe there's not. Maybe what happened is as black and white as a children's fable. The story, as told here, is that greedy capitalists destroyed the work of kind-hearted souls who sacrificed everything to save humanity and the planet -- and perhaps that is the simple, sad truth. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the perpetual struggle between altruism and capitalism. Do you think there needs to be a profitable angle for research that benefits the world?

  • Do you think documentaries should be objective, or can they take a position on the story they're telling? What was the point of view of this filmmaker? Do you think the whole story has been told?

  • How do the Synergians use teamwork to accomplish their goals? With their long list of successfully executed projects, why do you think Biosphere 2 didn't work out as planned?

  • Biosphere 2 is widely considered a failure. Do you agree? Why or why not? Was it a waste of time, energy, and financial resources? 

Movie details

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