Sundance 2020 Review: Matt Wolf Finds the Reality in the Beautiful Dream of “Spaceship Earth”

“Spaceship Earth” starts out with the same image that director Matt Wolf has said sparked his imagination to initially make his latest film, detailing the fiasco of Biosphere 2, the noble privately-subsidized project meant to replicate inhabitable conditions on another planet such as Mars should the opportunity arise. In 1991, eight scientists were hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world inside an eight-story terrarium where they would spend the next two years tending to the plant life inside necessary to create a sustainable ecosystem, and the scientists appear full of hope, instantly intriguing as they stand proudly in conspicuous uniforms that suggest they have arrived from another part of the galaxy.

Of course, the eventual disappointment of Biosphere 2, which became a pop culture punchline in the years to follow was rooted in causes that were all too human, and “Spaceship Earth” benefits from Wolf’s great gift to look back at history completely without cynicism. Like previous films “Teenage” and “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” his latest is comprised largely of archival material, of which remarkably there is plenty of not only from the Biosphere 2 project where capturing the experiment for posterity was naturally part of the goal, but dating back to the origins of the ambitious endeavor in the Theater of All Possibilities, a hippie commune that began in San Francisco during the late 1960s that married art and science to push for more creative solutions in both practices.

With footage from their earliest days on the Synergia Ranch in New Mexico where the group only consumed what they grew organically and the building of the Heraclitus, a sailboat that could whisk them around the world, one can see the seeds of the Biosphere 2 take shape, and just as one begins to wonder how this is all being paid for, the film introduces billionaire Ed Bass at just the right moment, a benefactor who can draw on his fortune in oil to aid the Theater of All Possibilities in their experiments, though as Wolf is careful to point out, they were pretty business savvy in their own right. This sets the stage well for the notion that if anyone was going to pull off Biosphere 2, it would be this group of dreamers operating off the grid with seemingly every practical consideration accounted for.

What couldn’t be, however, was the media attention that greeted the project, and though “Spaceship Earth” makes clear that was somewhat invited in by the organizers, hoping that at least some notoriety would bring visitors to Oracle, Arizona to make back some of the $200 million investment in the project that couldn’t possibly pay dividends for at least a generation or two, it’s a variable that shines a light on a greater human experiment than what had been intended for when Biosphere 2, which had always been viewed as a regenerative operation that would take decades to refine, was treated as a fun, bite-sized item to keep tabs on by morning shows and the nightly news.

Although a debate raged to whether such an undertaking should be attempted by those who didn’t hail from explicitly scientific backgrounds – though “Spaceship Earth” makes a compelling case they were qualified for this particular assignment – Wolf illuminates how the undoing of the experiment wasn’t the miscalculation of carbon dioxide levels inside the terrarium or any number of negligible errors, but the outside demand for instant gratification and spectacle that created such scrutiny to pressure its backers into abandoning patience for short-term returns. That same mistake isn’t repeated in “Spaceship Earth,” where Wolf takes the time to place their work into the necessary context and once again creates an admiring profile of people who weren’t aware of their limitations until broader society wanted to remind them, resulting in a film that finds great inspiration in what may have been prematurely dubbed a failure.

“Spaceship Earth” does not yet have U.S. distribution.