In 1991, eight people wearing matching uniforms straight out of a cheap science fiction series isolated themselves in a self-contained replica of Earth’s ecosystem for two years in an attempt to…do science? To bring attention to Earth’s ecological peril? To push their personal and professional limits? To stroke the ego of a pseudo-cult leader?
There’s a lot of potential reasons for this bizarre experiment, which is no small part of why it grabbed the world’s attention at the time. Their entrance into the facility, named Biosphere 2, was documented by a flock of media personnel, as was the ensuing ups and downs of the experiment, which should have given director Matt Wolf a multitude of ways to dissect this weird bit of history.
It could have been a rip-roaring look at eccentrics who achieved their wildest dream. It could have been a deeply investigated look at whether any of their claims were accurate. It could have been a portrait of a time and place suddenly not too dissimilar to our own. It could have been a lot of things, but what it ended up being is a half-hearted, middle-of-the-road effort that goes nowhere, a bitter waste, yet again, of something that could’ve been so much.
Just Give Me A Reason
The red flags for this documentary come pretty early, as it spends its first 30 minutes in a lackluster history lesson on the collective that would give rise to Biosphere 2. They formed around John Allen in 1960s San Francisco, who encouraged them to do a variety of work including founding a theater company, building a boat to sail around the world, and establishing a ranch in New Mexico. The freewheeling, idealistic group sounds like a product of the time, but the film curiously doesn’t delve into the accouterments one expects of such collectives. There’s footage of their strange theater productions, yes, but this is mostly an outline of their achievements, scratched out, as they claim, through hard work and hardly any drugs.
The no drugs thing was revealed in a passing comment and seemingly wasn’t questioned by the filmmakers, a missed opportunity to either show contradictions in the group (maybe some did and others didn’t?) or to insert some additional research to back up the surprising claim. And yeah, it’s totally possible that they weren’t doing drugs, but when you show a bunch of young dreamers forming around an older man in 1960s San Francisco, the audience is naturally going to make some assumptions. To ignore them is either irresponsible or lazy, and an offhand comment about one aspect of these assumptions isn’t sufficient.
It was the first whiff of a very suspicious air that hangs over the entire film: an unwillingness to engage with its subjects. A good documentary goes beyond a sterile retelling of events (even rigorous attempts at objectivity like those of Frederick Wiseman have a point of view), and this documentary fails to give any meaningful pushback to its subjects. Many are interviewed, and their statements are woven into footage they took of themselves or news footage with minimal editorial interference. Turns out the story they want to tell is mostly a puff piece, putting as glossy a finish on this train wreck as possible. That leaves many unanswered questions, many gaping holes, and it makes the film a bore.
The Missing Delight Of Warts
Now before you get any ideas about me, I’m talking about metaphorical warts. I’m talking about the lifeblood of any story: faults. Your characters must have faults, foibles, things that make them relatable and human. No one likes a perfect try-hard, and this film’s unwillingness to question its character’s glossy stories makes that abundantly clear.
They want you to think this endeavor was a great thing. It had hiccups, yes, but the accusations that it wasn’t scientific, that the eight participants were pawns in some power play by Allen? Balderdash.
The fact that this film includes minimal footage of them fighting among themselves is striking and, frankly, hard to believe. It’s one of those gaping holes I alluded to, and like so many of them, they seem to come from the participants being unwilling to speak ill of the project (and the filmmaker’s unwillingness to contradict them). These are people who were subjected to dangerously low levels of oxygen (the air in Biosphere 2 proved extremely difficult to regulate), but still they seem perfectly happy with their time there?
I’m not saying this documentary needed to rip the whole thing to shreds. You can lovingly show hiccups and your film will be better for it. Crip Camp from earlier this year did it expertly, showing how an organized by the seat of its pants summer camp for people with disabilities gave rise to the disability rights movement in the US (and to a severe crabs outbreak among the campers). A crabs outbreak is not ideal for a summer camp, but it’s a product of humans being humans, and it’s one of the most charming moments in the film.
Or the filmmakers could disagree with the participants but still paint a touching portrait. Werner Herzog pointedly disagrees with bear activist and subject Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man, but you aren’t going to walk away from that thinking ill of Treadwell.
No project the size of Biosphere 2 would be as gauzy and uncomplicated as Spaceship Earth would have you believe. They allude to so many warts that are interesting and could’ve even played to their advantage, but they move on from them so quickly that it becomes almost suspicious.
Conclusion: Spaceship Earth
Given everything in this story, Spaceship Earth is a colossal bore. It’s a failure of documentary filmmaking, never getting past a surface-level look at the events of Biosphere 2 in a way that almost feels irresponsible. I wish, with all my heart, that someone else does this story justice.
What did you think of Spaceship Earth? Do you think it dug deep into this story? Let us know in the comments!
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