Directed by: Matt Wolf
Available on YouTube, Google Play, Hulu
Not Rated, 113 minutes
It seems facile to describe “Spaceship Earth” as a microcosm of the world at large, but that’s exactly what it is. The new documentary from Matt Wolf (“Teenage”) recounts in unsparing detail the inception, construction, and execution of a self-sufficient biosphere in the Arizona desert in the 1990s, a story its own characters describe as stranger than fiction. And while the narrative is certainly lurid, Wolf treats it with great sympathy and respect, creating a documentary that is at once maddening, heartfelt, and wholly bewildering.
“Spaceship Earth” documents Biosphere 2, a giant replica of Earth’s ecosystem. (Courtesy photo)
Biosphere 2, the site of the movie’s central events (so named because, we are told, “Biosphere 1 is Earth”), was an experimental three-acre ecosystem built under a glass dome, with a look reminiscent of hokey 1970s sci-fi. Its purpose was to see if life could be supported in a small, self-contained environment; if humankind ever colonizes the moon or Mars, such structures will surely be necessary, and if we’re going to have to use them, then we ought to start practicing here on Earth. This, anyway, is the logic of John Allen, the eccentric and ambitious leader of the group that ultimately built Biosphere 2 and put eight volunteers inside it for two years.
“Spaceship Earth” introduces this premise, but before it enters the biosphere, it takes us back to 1960s San Francisco to trace the origins of Allen’s grand idea. We meet supporting characters, like the eager young women and men who fall in with Allen and form a collective under his leadership. We watch their previous endeavors, from running a farm to staging theatrical productions to building a ship and sailing it out into San Francisco Bay. What the movie takes care to show, however, is that this is no ordinary hippie collective dreaming big and talking crazy. Comprising accomplished (and often self-taught) scientists, artists, and architects, the group is clearheaded and pragmatic, seeking only to challenge themselves to do and create, as a form of self-fulfillment. By the time the movie cycles back around to their biosphere project, it feels like the logical next step for a group that has already managed projects in London, the Australian outback, and Nepal.
This is also, however, where Allen’s group meets a critical news media for the first time. As his group experiments with eight lives under a sealed glass dome, Allen is branded a cult leader, a fraud, a madman; as the experiment falters, as oxygen levels dip and tempers flare, the accusations worsen. “Spaceship Earth” is told from the point of view of Allen and his followers, so it often frames these accusations as false, but it refrains from labeling anyone a liar; rather, Biosphere 2’s critics are painted as misunderstanding its purpose, as lashing out due to their fear of the unknown.
Whether this framing is completely honest is left for us to judge, but this isn’t a documentary of persuasion. The movie never takes great pains to articulate itself, anyway, which can be both frustrating and liberating; ultimately, the question of whether John Allen has nefarious ulterior motives matters little. What matters, and what Wolf highlights, is the humanity of the group’s members. What matters is their experience, taken holistically: We watch archival footage of theatrical performances, knowing that we’re watching skilled doctors and biologists in heavy makeup and costumes; we listen to recordings of their therapy sessions from inside the dome; they label themselves “synergists,” asserting the inherent link between their varied pursuits. If “Spaceship Earth” is meant to persuade us of anything, it is to think of the Biosphere 2 endeavor less as a biological experiment and more as a philosophical one.
As a story of human ambitions, it is tremendously immersive (not to mention timely, given the subject matter of isolation from the world). The archival footage—recorded by the group’s members throughout its existence, as if they knew it would come in handy someday—gives us generous insight into the group’s dynamics; paired with the movie’s present-day interviews, the effect is often mesmerizing. Rather than a tell-all about a controversial historical event, the movie plays like a diary whose characters reflect our imperfect humanity—our improbable goals, hurt pride, elation and paranoia—back at us. “Spaceship Earth” feels universal, like it’s the story of life at any stage, a Garden of Eden parable from which any next story is possible.
Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.