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It’s become all too easy, and all too lazy, to look at every new piece of art in the context of the coronavirus. So Normal People is now maybe about the increased importance of physical intimacy as we socially distance, while Trolls: World Tour is in fact a rallying cry for globalisation as countries continue to further isolate. Or something. But while these connections can feel strained to say the least, with documentary Spaceship Earth it’s impossible not to draw a line, even a faint one, between its story of eight people who chose to spend two years locked up inside an experimental biosphere and the quarantine we’re all, mostly, now a part of.
The key word here is obviously chose, but the film, being given a splashy lockdown release (as well as digitally – it’ll be projected outside in a number of US cities), is unavoidably of the moment, dealing with not only the impact of extreme indoor living but also the need for thinking beyond the world we’re in now, of what we might need to do in the present to ensure we have a future. Premiering at this year’s Sundance before getting picked up by Neon (on a high after their Oscar win for Parasite as well as ushering hit docs Apollo 11 and Honeyland to the screen last year), Spaceship Earth lands with a great deal of promise, so much so that I found myself wanting to like it more than I actually did, a film being pushed as your new favourite documentary that ends up as one you sort of kinda like instead.
It begins with news footage that many viewers might be at least vaguely familiar with: a crack team of assorted experts entering the Biosphere 2, a structure erected in Arizona in the late 80s as a way of testing the tenability of life in outer space. They would spend two years inside with nothing coming in or out, including oxygen, forced to grow and make their own food and survive in an elaborately constructed ecosystem. We’re then taken back, two decades before the media frenzy, to see the origins of those who came up with the idea: an ambitious group of sci-fi loving hippies headed up by writer and ecologist John Allen. They were unusual because there was always a practicality behind their wild thinking, an embrace of theatre yet also an alignment with science.
We follow them through a number of projects, including a staggeringly well-made ship that they used to travel the world, all the way through to their biggest gamble to date. The impetus behind Biosphere 2 (called this because the first biosphere is our planet) wasn’t just a desire to innovate and explore, but a fear for the future and of how humankind was slowly killing Earth. Bankrolled by billionaire Ed Bass, Allen and his team created something inarguably spectacular, but while the film, from documentarian Matt Wolf, might cause us to respect them, it can’t quite get us to understand them at the same time, showing us an impressive achievement but never truly bringing it to life, warts and all. Allen is a complicated figure, seen by some as close to a cult leader, but aside from a scattering of isolated anecdotes, we’re never really sure of who he is and exactly what relationship he had with those around him. Wolf has amassed an incredible amount of archival footage, yet life inside the facility is told to us in broad strokes with interpersonal dynamics feeling thin and tensions barely realised.
When controversy strikes, it doesn’t feel as if we’re getting the full uncensored story, as if anything we could have read elsewhere is being expanded on. It’s reminiscent of a sturdy yet mostly factual long read, telling us what happened but not getting us to feel what it was like for those involved. It’s an interesting watch, and when there’s a late-in-the-day cameo of sorts from a well-known Trump-loving villain it becomes especially so, but for a film with so many intriguing ingredients and so much access to those who were there, it’s frustratingly content to scratch the surface rather than taking us any deeper. Like the structure at its centre, Spaceship Earth is a smart concept that never really takes off.
Source: The Guardian
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