Documentaries find room to breathe online

In a couple of hundred years a book or documentary about the history of the 21st century would probably not mention the outbreak of Coronavirus and how it affected the world.

by Michael Bergeron

Wars last decades, climates change slowly but a pestilence that lasts a year is a drop in the ocean of time. Look at the history from one hundred years ago – the narrative goes straight from WWI to the Roaring Twenties with nary a mention of Spanish Flu.

There are some excellent documentaries premiering this week courtesy of VOD. In another reality these films would’ve found a venue at your local movie theater but that’s another kettle of fish.

Would any new documentary no matter the subject be slightly improved if it added an epilogue that included the effect of the current COVID-19 epidemic on its core narrative?

Certainly the filmmakers of “Spaceship Earth” would have to acknowledge an invisible metaphor between eight people who willfully chose to live in isolation for two years and the current state of affairs where people are hunkered down in their respective abodes practicing social distancing.

“Spaceship Earth” follows the development and implementation of the Biosphere 2 experiment, which was designed to record scientific data on living in a controlled self-contained environment. The concept was designed to mimic a fabricated city of the future on the Moon or on Mars. It was called Biosphere 2 because Biosphere 1 was the Earth.

The film wisely switches gears at the beginning by traveling back to the mid-1960s and examining the youthful trajectory of the people who would head this futuristic experiment that was designed to replicate closed ecological conditions.

Starting in San Francisco in the late-1960, a group led by engineer John P. Allen did everything from engage in experimental theater to building a seaworthy boat that sailed around the world. With funding they built a hotel in Kathmandu, maintained a rainforest in Puerto Rico and started an art gallery in London. The title of the film comes from the group’s solidarity with the ideas of Buckminster Fuller.

Clever use of archival footage mixes societal events that shaped the latter decades of the last century with the most obvious reference point to the Biosphere project being the 1972 film “Silent Running,” which posited a kind of biosphere in outer space and plays as well today as it did then. (No mention is made of the unrelated 1996 comedy Bio-Dome.)

Technically, the original ‘Biosphere 2’ experiment ends in failure due to an overabundance of carbon dioxide at which point the team allows outside oxygen to be pumped in. The main funder, Ft. Worth based billionaire Ed Bass had Allen and his board forcibly removed and replaced by a group headed by Steve Bannon (yes that Steve Bannon).

Currently ‘Biosphere 2’ is open to public tours (currently suspended due to Corona concerns) and run by the University of Arizona. “Spaceship Earth” involves viewers with a timely debate between visionary motives and quicker returns on profits.

“Spaceship Earth” is available from Neon on streaming sites starting May 8.


The documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” presents a comprehensive view of how money changed hands from the 18th century aristocracy to the modern day middle class and back to the one-percent.

Directed by Justin Pemberton and based on the book by economist Thomas Piketty, the film from Kino Marquee is part of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s virtual theater.

“Michael Moore Presents” Planet of the Humans” (directed by Jeff Gibbs) examines the politics and money behind green energy. The documentary is currently streaming for free on Youtube.


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