I am sitting in my pitch-dark apartment, lit only by my laptop screen, eating the most appealing option from the pandemic rations in my pantry and thinking about how the last time I hugged someone was three days before my March birthday. (I’m not actually sure about that — did we even touch each other?)
And I’m watching a group of humorless early-’90s lab rats dressed like extras from a vintage Nickelodeon show seal themselves into a human-made biosphere for two years. They are highly strung about deadly air and supplies from the outside world.
Ooh. Same, same. At least they have people to hug, I think.
"Spaceship Earth," a new documentary from Alamo Drafthouse-affiliated distributor Neon, seems to be the perfect movie for the coronavirus-plagued masses sheltering in place with nothing to love but sourdough starters. The film, directed by Matt Wolf, promises "science fiction without the fiction." In 1991, eight "biospherians" went to live in a hermetically sealed dome in the Arizona desert, dubbed Biosphere 2. It was high-concept idealism, the project of a countercultural co-op looking for a new way to live as the planet slowly meets its maker.
Then, as the trailer promises: Things! Go! Wrong! But "Spaceship Earth" sadly sucks all the color out of its gonzo premise until it’s as beige as a biospherian.
The film’s fatal flaw might indeed be its subjects. On paper, it’s all wild as hell: We first meet a found family of hippies, brought together by an enigmatic man named John Allen. He’s largely silent as the events of "Spaceship Earth" unfold, but one collaborator describes Allen as a "mind musician" looking for "free thinkers," which is quite literally how a creative writing prompt might describe a cult leader who takes in directionless youths with idle hands.
Unfortunately for the film, these people are, to a one, profoundly dull.
That’s not meant to be unkind. It’s meant to explain that our fearless collectivists, now much older, talk about building a seafaring vessel from scratch with the same enthusiasm you or I might describe the line items on a W2 form.
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Allen and his synergistic collective busy themselves with challenges for challenge’s sake. As one member puts it, they weren’t a commune — they were a corporation, and "quite capitalistic." The group links up with the black sheep scion of a Fort Worth oil family, who pumps money into projects in London, Kathmandu and the Australian Outback.
Oh, and the group also puts on uncomfortable, avant garde plays around the world. For whom? Unclear!
The construction projects are their own kind of performance, especially Biosphere 2, our main attraction. It’s presented as a monument to metaphor — parts are stronger as a whole. "Spaceship Earth" also succeeds, albeit with the sobriety of an algebra teacher, in communicating Allen’s guiding ethos: It’s all theater. Kind of like when RuPaul says, "We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag," but with much less glitter.
As the film settles into the titular habitat, it’s easy with splashes of 1991-style weird. You’ve got your campy spacesuits for the crew, your Talking Heads music cue, your cameo from a different Rue (McClanahan, of "Golden Girls" fame). Duty eventually takes over, and "Spaceship Earth" becomes the story of a science experiment run by performance artists instead of scientists. Inside Biosphere 2, a real botanist tends to plants, and a real medical doctor monitors vital stats. But outside in George H.W. Bush’s America, there are Biosphere 2 T-shirts for sale.
Wolf has assembled all the pieces in the right places for a modern doc in the strange-but-true milieu — a seemingly innocent origin story, followed by rapidly escalating stakes that lead to an Icarus moment. The film’s big outrages, though, feel incredibly low stakes, especially when you’re expecting Rod Serling twists with a VHS aesthetic.
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The director seems guided more by purpose than rubbernecking, which is admirable.
"While making this film, I never could have imagined that a pandemic would require the entire world to be quarantined. ... In light of COVID-19, we are all living like biospherians, and we too will re-enter a new world," Wolf wrote in a director’s statement about the film. "The question is how will we be transformed? Now with a visceral sense of the fragility of our world, it’s on us to protect it."
Everything about "Spaceship Earth," though — from marketing to story beats — dangles the carrot of cult oddity. Instead, you get humorless biospherians, far too polite about all that mad science and overshadowed by their own kicky jumpsuits. "Spaceship Earth" becomes hamstrung by a noble sense of dignity that prevents it from honestly reckoning with some real wacky goings-on. At just shy of two hours, it’s a tedious movie about tedious people.
These days, I don’t lack for tedium.