There has been an irksome trend in recent documentaries where the filmmakers are too passive and demure about their subjects. You see it in Wild Wild Country, the 2018 Netflix miniseries about a controversial cult. The Biggest Little Farm also took their subjects at face value, to the point it was unclear where the truth ended and lies by omission began. It is impossible to know what happened in the development of these films – or what was left on the cutting room floor – but what seems to unite them is the sacrifice of independence for access. These strange people are willing to tell their story on camera, as long it’s their version of the story and nothing else.
That same issue plagues Spaceship Earth, Matt Wolf’s documentary about the “voyage” of Biosphere 2. You may recall Biosphere 2 was an experiment in the early 1990s wherein eight scientists lived inside a sealed habitat for two years, hoping to sustain life without outside interference. Partial inspiration for Biosphere 2 is Silent Running, a post-apocalyptic science fiction film where all that’s left of humanity are scientists in a self-sustained space station that circles the globe. Substituting Arizona for outer space, these scientists figure that if Biosphere 2 is a success, they will be ready to recreate something similar off our planet.
Matt Wolf includes extensive interviews with the crew of Biosphere 2, as well as plenty of archival footage and newscasts. News of their experiment caught the public imagination, to the point where news anchors like Katie Couric and Peter Jennings would regularly report on it. What is more intriguing, however, is how the story of the biosphere begins in the late 1960s. Turns out that the John Allen, the project’s de-facto leader, was a kind of cult leader.
The project’s roots had more in common with arts than science, and before embarking on this project, his team would run immersive theater projects. Only these Kool Aid-sipping insiders, Allen and his followers, who describe what happens during this period. There is a passing mention of how they made money, although there is never any follow-up. It is almost like the interviewees are talking to the audience like strange you might meet at party, but a filmmaker owes it to his viewers (and himself) to be more thorough than that.
By any serious metric, Biosphere 2 was a failure. The outside world eventually learns that the biosphere was getting a major assist from a carbon dioxide tank, one that would help balance the interior’s atmosphere. There is an interesting section where the scientists finally concede they cannot live alone, and by stabilizing the air inside, their sense if vigor and enthusiasm quickly returns.
At this point, however, some follow-up questions are practically essential. If Biosphere 2 cannot sustain itself, why bother continuing with their experiment? What do these people think they have proven, if anything? Spaceship Earth never musters any desire for the hard truth, so instead there is another interview where these aging hippie scientists talk about the importance of conversation. They deserve someone tougher than Matt Wolf, since their big project ultimately amounts to little more than science-flavored theater.
In between the face-value curiosity of Spaceship Earth, there are hints of a more thoughtful, challenging film. The connection between pop-science and hippie theatrics deserves some anthropological analysis, while the conservation implications of their failure are never fully fleshed out. Instead, Wolf opts for more lurid stretches that have more in common with tabloids than serious investigation. Steven Bannon – yes, that Steve Bannon – makes an appearance that amounts to little more than titillation, or maybe coincidence. His involvement is an early precursor to how finance and tech industries would intertwine, and aside from the novelty of him as a younger man, his cameo adds little understanding to the project’s failures.
Spaceship Earth eschews curiosity, opting instead for a fawning scrapbook of Biosphere 2’s place in history. For a film that includes everything from freaky communes to harrowing brushes with death, its halfhearted presentation is all the more disappointing. We should demand more from documentary filmmakers, just like documentary filmmakers should demand more from their subjects.