‘Spaceship Earth’ review: quarantine doc about isolated scientists is stranger than fiction

Learn about the '90s commune behind the Biosphere 2 – a giant replica of the earth's ecosystem built in the Arizona desert

At the dawn of the Space Race JFK didn’t just ask America to send a man to the moon, he asked that they return safely to Earth as well. After successfully disturbing the Sea of Tranquility, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins did return – and in a post-travel safety exercise that has now become relatable, they were put in quarantine for three weeks. Matt Wolf’s new film Spaceship Earth is about a mission that has all the airlocks, flightsuits and pomp of an Apollo mission, but with none of that pesky rocket launching. A mission that bypasses the standard order of space exploration and jumps to the epilogue, following eight explorers and their self-isolation in the biggest greenhouse to ever land on the Arizona desert.

This is Biosphere 2 (we currently live in its disappointing prequel, Biosphere 1, the Earth), an enormous glass and metal structure that looks like the Crystal Palace was built on Tatooine. In 1991, along with those eight people – or to use the proper term, eight Biospherians – the containment housed a bounty of wildlife from the deserts, mountains and oceans of our planet.

It was the brainchild of the Synergists, a collective of artists, scientists, actors, agriculturalists and architects, assembled by their free-thinking leader, the mercurial John Allen. Regularly found in a suit and fedora, Allen looked like a Sinatra sibling who got lost on the way to the Rat Pack. Wolf’s documentary tracks Allen and the Synergists from plucky idealistic youth theatre group, packs of which could be found on any university quad, to global co-op; rising into agriculture, seafaring, the Kathmandu hotel industry, London gallery ownership and eventually Biosphere creation.


Told through home video footage, newsreels and talking heads, Spaceship Earth is at its best in its earlier stages, when its collage of forms tightly mesh. Combined with Owen Pallet’s superb, Michael Nyman-esque score, the film whips together the creative momentum and energy that must have come from bouncing between international utopian visions. A shame then, that first-thought song choices by Thunderclap Newman and Talking Heads make it out of the mood-board and into the cut.

Spaceship Earth
‘Spaceship Earth’ is streaming on digital platforms now. Credit: NEON

At the peak of the Synergists powers – and with the help of billionaire funder Ed Bass – their great glass opus is created. A monument that would highlight man’s own ecological failings, showcasing environmental and scientific harmony on a micro scale, as a trial run for bringing it to outer space. However, after the red carpet, flash-bulb, Hollywood press treatment, they couldn’t even shut the door properly. It was clear from liftoff that Biosphere 2 had a problem. Cue a gripping drama that any Big Brother fan would love: failing crops, trapped limbs, starvation, contraband gas, banana wine and to top it all off, far right extremist Steve Bannon.

It’s a relay of failings and revelations – having spent half the film climbing the great ziggurat steps, the Synergists do fall down the other side in a staggering fashion; but refreshingly, although the film allows for fun, it really isn’t. Spaceship Earth achieves the goal of the Synergists – to highlight the friction between finance and innovation, corporation and environmental exploitation, and our own non-cyclical relationship with our planet. And all with a little theatre too.


  • Director: Matt Wolf
  • Starring: John Allen, Abigail Alling, Margret Augustine
  • Release date: July 10 (Digital)

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