Review by Sean Boelman
Seemingly intended to be this year’s Apollo 11, Matt Wolf’s new documentary Spaceship Earth takes a look at a scientific endeavor that was almost as ambitious, but nowhere near as successful. And even though it doesn’t quite live up to the image of its supposed cousin, the compelling story and able direction here make this an entertaining and crowd-pleasing watch.
In the film, Wolf takes a look at the Biosphere 2 project in which a group of scientists and thinkers set out in the ‘90s to make a functioning recreation of the Earth’s ecosystem. This alone is an interesting enough story to earn a documentary about it, but the craziness that it inspired is what will stick with audiences.
The first half of the movie provides a history of the Biosphere 2 and the people who were involved in the experiment, aptly named Biospherians. Through archive footage and interviews with some of the surviving members of the group, Wolf explores the theoretical foundations of the project and why it became a worldwide obsession for a certain period of time.
This is all well and good, and makes for a cinematic watch, but the really juicy stuff starts to happen when the experiment actually begins. What was intended to be a famous endeavor instead turns into an infamous stunt, as new information comes out and the court of public opinion begins to shift. The second half of the film explores this portion of the story, and it’s pretty captivating.
The only thing that holds back Wolf’s movie from greatness is that it is disappointingly unable to make any firm judgement on its subjects. People who remember these events have surprisingly strong opinions about the Biospherians, and yet Wolf seems more interested in providing an amusing portrait of interesting subjects rather than an in-depth analysis of the situation.
That isn’t to say that the film is entirely inconsequential — it’s certainly very interesting to hear about the events from the mouths of the people who participated in the experiment — but the movie tries a bit too hard to rebuff the controversy that came about as a result of the endeavor, and there’s a giant hole in the story as a result.
But apart from a need to refine his argument, Wolf does a very good job behind the camera. The blend of archive footage and interviews is an effective way to tell the story, and there is a great sense of momentum despite a moderately lengthy runtime. The archive materials that Wolf uses are particularly fascinating, though, and audiences will likely wish they could have seen more of that.
Spaceship Earth is an enjoyable and mostly very well-made documentary. And while it’s a bit saddening that more audiences won’t get to see this on the big screen as it deserves, NEON’s ambitious release strategy with this will guarantee that it gets eyes on it, in one way or another.
Spaceship Earth is available on VOD, virtual cinema offerings, and Hulu beginning May 8.