Spaceship Earth is a brand new documentary feature from Neon Studios and producer/director Matt Wolf, which chronicles the groundbreaking saga of “Biosphere 2,” as well as the eight individuals who quarantined themselves inside it for two years in an attempt to discover whether or not ordinary human beings would be able to survive in an extraterrestrial, mobile environment by. “Biosphere 2” was the brainchild of John Allen and several of his close associates, the main ones the film focuses on being Abigail Alling, Margret Augustine, Kathy Dyhr, William Dempster, and Tony Burgess, with assisted funding for the innovative project coming from billionaire Ed Bass. Chronicling the origins and fallout of this colossal task, Wolf takes us from the beginnings of the group that would become known as “The Synergists” – as they come up from building ranches and opening international art galleries, to managing rain forests and manufacturing their very own oceanic vessels – all the way through to the aftermath of their mammoth undertaking with “Biosphere 2,” wherein critical media attention, legitimacy-averse scientific panels, inter-group “betrayals,” and the interests of capital giants like Steve Bannon caused the entire project’s purpose to collapse, the focus then shifting towards margins of short-term profitability and monetary loss. “Biosphere 2” would go on to become a tourist attraction, governed by the University of Arizona, for those wishing to study the effects of greenhouse gases and the like on the Earth’s atmosphere. With additional testimony provided by Jane Goodall, Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, Phil Hawes, and many, many more, Spaceship Earth seeks to ask the questions: what happened with “Biosphere 2, and what lessons can be gleamed from it?,” answering with a poignant reminder about the immediacy of climate change, as well as a microcosmic view of just how delicate our planet truly is.
I don’t tend to review many documentary features, largely because I’m not sure how to approach looking for them outside of the five that are typically nominated for the Academy’s Best Documentary pool each year. Until that list is announced, at least in most years, it is difficult to find documentaries that cover particular subjects and/or events as well as the soul-opening Mr. Rogers doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or James Marsh’s iconic Man on Wire. This, combined with the fact that many documentary features are not widely distributed to mainstream theaters due to a lack of profitability, can make seeking them out occasionally feel like the world’s most tedious treasure hunt. There is no promise that certain narrative features are going to be better than some documentaries, but whereas narrative films are easier to analyze and are almost always more profitable, documentaries run a far greater risk of being boring if the subject they tackle is not handled correctly. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Spaceship Earth, as Matt Wolf’s portrait of manufactured worlds within worlds is a fascinating, properly engaging look at a grand-scale event (at least, insofar as scientific study is concerned) that many seem to have either forgotten about or discounted entirely.
Not all of the film works as well as one might hope, and we’ll get into why in a bit, but for now, suffice it to say, Spaceship Earth is an increasingly rare type of documentary, that being one wherein its producer and director has been given unparalleled access to a gold mine of footage from which to construct a narrative, but waits until the very end to leave their stance of objectivity behind, instead asking the viewer to invest not in what is being said, but only what is being shown. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk with such a rich subject as “Biosphere 2,” (so named, by the way, because the participants thought of Earth as “Biosphere 1”), but nonetheless, Wolf walks it with his eyes trained squarely on the other end of line, walking calmly along its center until it’s time to pull out one flashy trick at the end. To some, this may be seen as a boring approach (after all, isn’t a tightrope walker meant to pull out flashy tricks in the middle?), but others will know that to pull off something such as that, first one must learn to walk the tightrope without falling, and as Wolf does, we see a more honest, objective take on this situation than we might have otherwise been given.
As we come to know more about John Allen, and the Synergists, we get little glimpses into how the rest of the world reacted to their presence. The group was very much internationally prolific, and their exploits across the globe (while not having much to do with “Biosphere 2” itself) provide an understandable foundation for what would become their greatest accomplishment. In fact, so essential is this foundation when it comes to understanding how there could be such a group, as well as how easily they might agree to be part of this project, that the film spends almost the entire first half chronicling their earlier exploits, such as they development of an art gallery in London, or the construction of their own sea-faring vessel, which allowed them even more international outreach. Not all of the world thought of this group as innovative, however. Some theories began to emerge, including (but not limited to) the belief that Allen and company either had the makings of, or very much were, a sort of scientifically-driven cult. Spaceship Earth does little to entertain this notion in terms of exploration of the belief, but also does not entirely disavow this notion as one that only crazy people had at the time. It is this sort of approach that makes the film work as well as it does, neither condemning nor endorsing the controversies that arose from such an undertaking.
It is somewhat unfortunate that the most fascinating part of the documentary – that being all the footage from inside “Biosphere 2” – seems to make up the shortest segment of the film, whereas the drama and intrigue of everything that occurred outside the project’s bounds got more attention on the whole. Nevertheless, what inside footage we are privy to is incredible to witness, especially in how it affects the eight that were put into this two-year quarantine on a physical and mental level. Multiple members of the group suffer things such as oxygen deprivation, extreme weight loss, and bouts of irritability as a result of the atmosphere’s severe CO2 increase at one point during their quarantine. Scientific panels are brought about to discuss whether the experiment can remain legitimate since one of the members did have to come outside for a hand surgery, carrying duffel bags back in with her that were supposedly filled with supplies, and a CO2 pump (meant to decrease the amount in the air) was used in order to make the atmosphere more inhabitable. Everything in this section stands on a razor’s edge, and one is so fascinated by that razor’s sharpness that it almost causes whiplash when the experiment is over, and suddenly Ed Bass has delegitimized the whole operation by seeking to make it a profit churner with the help of one Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon).
The last twenty minutes or so of the film is where the message comes in, as Wolf and the 50-year-removed project participants attempt to grapple with the microcosmic results of their own biosphere demonstrating just how delicate the Earth is, and how immediate climate change was shown to be, even as the very people destroying our planet in its current moment seem hell-bent on denying that such a thing even exists, human beings be damned. Compared to the rest of the more objectively-minded film, this part seems (at first) like it may have been tacked on to the ending in order to make a point for the sake of making a point, but as one reflects on what Spaceship Earth was attempting to demonstrate (that being the resilience of its main subjects) in its earlier moments, there does come a connection between “Biosphere 2,” and this poignant warning about reaching the point of no return. Eventually, we come to remember that everything we’ve seen these participants doing has all been in the name of building a sustainable environment in which human beings could live, should we ever need to escape the Earth due to climate change’s devastating effects (especially since, more and more, it seems that day is fast approaching). Still, it does feel a bit jarring to just drop Steve Bannon, even if he is now a known climate change denier, into a documentary about a manufactured biosphere in the last twenty minutes, and then ask the audience to treat that section as just part of the larger narrative at play.
Spaceship Earth is a fascinating portrait of a globally-minded scientific experiment, but more than that, it is an engaging, fully-enrapturous gaze at a group and its leaders, who are so obsessed with creation and sustainability that they will willingly quarantine themselves for two years just to see if it life outside of Earth can be manufactured and sustainable in the long-term. From the origins, to the execution, to the fallout of “Biosphere 2,” Matt Wolf’s chronicle of this scientific journey remains a thoroughly entertaining watch from start to finish, and while not all of it works 100% of the time, this is a far better documentary than it has any right to be. To witness this film is to witness that Wolf is an undeniable talent, and I feel as if his ultimate masterwork is just ahead of him, maybe one or two movies away.
I’m giving “Spaceship Earth” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.