In theory, “Spaceship Earth” – Neon's new documentary that's available on many platforms this weekend – is a perfectly appropriate watch for our ongoing period of social distancing and newfound self-sufficiency. The idea of watching eight people physically confined to the inner spaces (albeit willingly, not for reasons stemming in a global pandemic) of Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert – while growing crops and finding new dimensions to relationships with limited opportunity to venture far away from each other – might draw alluring parallels to how we’re living today. We might even look to director, and seasoned documentarian, Matt Wolf’s latest film for insights or answers time capsule’d from 1991, when this real-life sci-fi venture begins. After all, while that group of eight may have been inside for a mind-boggling two years, at least they know for certain how much time is left on the clock.
It’s also tempting to think that hypothesis of how “Spaceship Earth” will unfold might have been the movie Wolf actually made, had it been pieced together with the ongoing coronavirus crisis in mind (as it continues to be on all of ours) and not well before we ever heard of the disease or anticipated its fallout. In reality, there’s few moments in the scattershot, fascinatingly unfocused “Spaceship Earth” that directly mirrors what we’re going through. The movie covers much more than the events of those two years, and in its unsteady hopscotching from person to person, moment to moment, idea to idea, “Spaceship Earth” often transcends its shabby construction about a brave coalition of eco-pioneers to become a meta inquiry into what it says about us that we may expect certain things to come out of staying locked inside one place for so long—whether out of current experience or basic assumptions about human nature.
Wolf’s movie begins with a bit of a stylistic swerve. Alongside cable news reports and a musically optimized optimism, we watch as eight explorers take their last breath of the Arizona air and enter into Biosphere 2, a massive facility representing a grounded, biological ark in the pre-Elon Musk era of space colony fantasy. It’s a massive structure made of glass and steel, and straight out of a science-fiction comic book. “The experimenters have entered the experiment,” one of the temporary colonists says directly into the camera. It’s too attractive not to think, for just this moment, that the next two hours will focus entirely on what transpires next.
Instead, “Spaceship Earth” jumps 25 years back to the West Coast roots of the group of enthusiastic twenty-somethings, self-made ecologists and perhaps – as some posit – cultists who will later develop Biosphere 2. As it turns out, the glass-walled encampment is just the latest million-dollar exploit imagined up by the collective at the heart of Biosphere 2, a ragtag group of free-spirited friends raised on 1970s goodwill and brought together by a common passion for living off the work of their own hands. (An early shot at one of the members reading R. Buckminster fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” is as much a signal of their ethics as it might be a hint at how Wolf found his title.)
Early in these scenes, however, you’ll find yourself missing the enticing pull of the unknown that fills the movie’s prologue. Through talking head interviews and archival footage, “Spaceship Earth” laboriously spends nearly half its runtime establishing what leads up to the self-styled Synergists stepping into Biosphere 2, starting the timer—and in telling the story of their increasingly-eye-opening projects, funded by billionaire Texan oil man Edward Bass, the doc rarely feels as interested in exploring the minds behind any given endeavor as it is in portraying their endeavors of the mind. Meanwhile, an underlying sense of irony (for example: an interviewee is introduced with the nickname “Horse Shit”) hums along so subtly that you wonder if Wolf is aware of its presence at all.
There’s a mentality of extravagant ambition among the practical-minded Synergists – led by John Allen, easily distinguishable in a documentary whose personalities tend to overlap each other as much as its ideas do – that largely overshadows individual members. It may not be that easy to recall individual names, save for Allen, but that doesn’t seem to be as interesting to Wolf as broadly translating their message (and reminder) that Earth needs to be cultivated and cared for the way it’s cultivated the human race.
The concept is practically literalized with Biosphere 2, even if the Synergists’ motivations remain largely unclear. What is it the group hoped to do with the discoveries they made once they’re finally locked in? Is it as simple as a matter of endurance? Of personal fulfillment? It’s never made clear—like the Synergists themselves, “Spaceship Earth” can often waver between deciding whether it’s a production of impulse or a production of intention. It’s no source of enlightenment that we haven’t really gotten to know those who embark on this solitary expedition. “How long can they last in there without getting sick or something?” a young girl watching from the outside is caught wondering out loud. I found myself wondering the same thing.
The bulk of footage from life inside Biosphere 2, which begin with a few cosmic moments of tranquility – as if the structure really has taken off from Earth – can feel like we’re observing from too-safe a distance; the group’s documentarian never gets provocatively intimate with the camera. The occasional profane outburst of agitation cuts through the methodical cutting of crops, putting us on the lookout for more evidence of what this first-of-its-kind adventure can do to a person’s mind. But when there’s already so little personal insight from inside Biosphere 2, so little getting to know how its occupants are affected first-hand aside from fleeting anecdotes of urgency, asking for more is a big task of Wolf. Indeed, it really isn’t even his intention. The biggest shortcoming, however aesthetic it may be, is realizing that any indications of time’s passage in Biosphere 2 are astoundingly limited.
Of course, Wolf is also limited by the amount of archival footage he has at his disposal. To compensate, he pivots to the perspective of the outside world. Perhaps inevitably, the initial fascination over time shifts to speculation and even suspicion, and Allen has to rein in negative media reports purporting him to be a cult leader while naysayers – some of them card-carrying scientists – refer to the project as mere “ecological entertainment.” These are fascinating sojourns contrasting the Synergists' own reflections, though Wolf doesn’t much interrogate the particulars, even when an older Allen is sitting in front of his camera and laughing it all off 20 years later. In this documentary, the documentarian’s touch is light, his involvement minimal—we’re hearing from the Synergists firsthand, and it makes for testimony that’s both exceptionally informative and also maddeningly inconsistent.
“Spaceship Earth” ultimately sides with the innovators, or at least sympathizes with them, as the movie ends on a coda years after the purposes of Biosphere 2 have begun to be steered towards profit-making. The Synergists ecologically-minded motivations will never not be relevant; indeed, they’re only growing ever more so as we look out the window, waiting to be able to mingle with our common man sans a mask. But because the microscope of Wolf’s film stays mostly static and stoic, the Biospherians’ collective hopeful spirit comes with a lingering unanswered question—what is it they learned on the inside that changes how they saw the outside?
"Spaceship Earth" is not rated. It's available to stream on Hulu and on various virtual cinema options Friday.
Starring: John Allen, Tony Burgess, Kathelin Gray, Linda Leigh
Directed by Matt Wolf