One of the promotional photos for the new documentary Spaceship Earth shows a woman in a bright red “Biosphere 2” sweatshirt smiling through a pane of glass at a small group of onlookers standing outside. It’s a surreal sight, but one that looks oddly familiar in the age of social distancing. In 2020, we’ve seen pictures of young people visiting older and at-risk relatives through a window, and videos of parades passing by the houses of friends to celebrate birthdays at a safe remove.

In other words, Spaceship Earth is a shockingly timely movie for a film chronicling a science experiment that took place 30 years ago. That would be Biosphere 2, an attempt to create an enclosed, self-sufficient biosphere in order to study Earth’s ecology and learn what humanity would need to attempt colonization of distant planets. (In case you’re wondering, there was no Biosphere 1; Biosphere 1 was supposedly Earth.) Biosphere 2 became a subject of intense media scrutiny in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but it’s mostly faded into obscurity in the years since. Ask someone today what Biosphere 2 is now and they’ll probably respond with “They made a sequel to that Pauly Shore movie?”

Spaceship Earth, directed by Matt Wolf, looks at the origins of the actual (non-Pauly-Shore-related) Biosphere 2 and the people who built it, and finds modern resonance in their quest for knowledge. As Wolf compiled the film, he clearly had climate change on his mind. The group that founded Biosphere 2, a bunch of former San Francisco hippies who started an ecological commune in New Mexico called Synergia Ranch, was motivated by workshops about global warming in the early 1980s. Interview subjects from Synergia bemoan the fact that most of the lessons they learned from Biopshere 2 have been ignored for three decades, while their data has been held hostage by unsympathetic corporate interests.

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Spaceship Earth may have been envisioned as lament for scientists whose warning fell on deaf ears, but by the time Spaceship Earth made its way to the public — largely on VOD rather than in theaters, because of the coronavirus pandemic — the film and its story of the “Biospherians” who spent two years inside Biosphere 2 began reflecting on our world in other ways. Many of the surviving members of the original Biosphere 2 team talk about the struggles they faced living in close contact with the same people in the same spaces, day after day. They faced food shortages. They struggled with the tedium of repeating the same tasks over and over. In other words, if you think quarantine life is tough, just wait until you see what happens in a biosphere.

The Biospherians faced even greater adversity, although Spaceship Earth doesn’t find room to discuss a bunch of it. Wolf chronicles some of Biosphere’s big challenges, including an inexplicable and dangerous rise in the system’s carbon dioxide levels. But a quick glance at the biosphere’s Wikipedia page reveals all kinds of other drama that’s barely mentioned in the film, including an infestation of cockroaches, a troubled second mission (“Biosphere 2 2?”), and an alleged act of vandalism by two members of the original crew. One film can only include so much material, but Spaceship Earth only scratches the surface of its subject; when the wiki page is more interesting than the movie, that’s not a great sign.

The Synergia group were undeniably important to Biosphere 2; the experiment simply doesn’t happen without them. But at the same time, Spaceship Earth devotes a ton of time to the origins and history of Synergia Ranch, including their exploits in the world of experimental theater and international sailing, neither of which ultimately add much to the overall tale of the Biosphere’s ups and downs. Very few of the actual Biospherians belonged to Synergia before the mission, and watching Spaceship Earth I found myself wanting to see more material focused on their lives, before and after their two years inside the Biosphere.

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Wolf is understandably fond of the Synergia staff, particularly its charismatic founder, John P. Allen, but his documentary is most memorable in the scenes that follow the Biosphere 2 team as they work together in self-imposed isolation. The best sequences replicate the biosphere’s claustrophobic atmosphere for an audience at home that can relate to that feeling more now than at any other point in their lives. For a few minutes, Wolf puts us behind that huge glass wall with the Biospherians, and we get to feel like we’re not one of the tourists peeking at them through the glass. He just lets us back outside way too quickly.

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