“Spaceship Earth” is a documentary that fails on the most basic level: it tells the story that nobody wants to hear. The film, blessed with the compelling story of the spectacular failure that was Arizona’s Biosphere 2 project, squanders its opportunity to show us what we really want to see. Instead, director Matt Wolf focuses on the 1960s counterculture that inspired the team of unappealing “Biospherians.” It’s a behind-the-scenes exploration, alright: the film just doesn’t open the door that you really want to look in.
In 1991, eight hippie visionaries dedicated two years of their lives to live in quarantine inside a self-engineered replica of the Earth’s ecosystems in an attempt to chronicle their daily existence in the face of a life-threatening ecological disaster. The sprawling 3.14 acre dome, built in the Arizona desert, housed a tropical rainforest, desert, savannah grassland, mangrove wetlands, and an ocean, complete with a living coral reef. The experimental project, called Biosphere 2, was a worldwide phenomenon that brought attention to the global climate crisis – and fought off accusations that the team behind the project was nothing more than a cult. It’s a bizarre story about dreamers who failed spectacularly, and this documentary follows in their footsteps.
The movie spends too much time on the free-spirited origins of the project, with a long and drawn out look at the weird and mostly boring stories of the dome’s inhabitants and their adoration of John Allen and the Synergia Ranch. None of the subjects are that interesting, much less likable. Even with the majority of time dedicated to telling their personal narrative, we still do not learn very much about them. Wolf tries to make the film about the people not the project, when the project is far more interesting.
The documentary doesn’t spend enough time on what life was like inside the dome, rushing through the parts of everyday life in isolation from the outside world. It doesn’t acknowledge the questions you want answered and instead goes off on a tangent about everything but. The best parts are the archival footage of day-to-day activities like harvesting food, cooking, and exercise regimens. As anger and frustration (and near starvation) set in, their hippie-created Utopia begins to crumble in full public view.
“Spaceship Earth” lands with the thud of a boring, academic presentation, and it’s hard to champion a documentary where the subject deserved much more than that.