Approximately a year ago, I was seated at the TIFF Bell Lightbox ready to view Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Not knowing anything about the director behind the camera/editing suite, I was intrigued by Wolf’s ambitious cinematic interpretation of obsession. Recorder ended up becoming on my favorite sleeper hits of the festival; a wondrously edited and hypnotic nostalgia throwback while simultaneously delivering an important commentary on mental health awareness. Since viewing Wolf’s 2019 feature, I’ve been anticipating his next film. Yet, I did not expect it to come so soon. His latest feature Spaceship Earth is yet another documentary about the power of ambition. A righteous scientific exploration turned corporate tragedy, the story which backs Spaceship Earth is nothing short of outstanding.
A film told over the span of 50 years, utilizing old archival footage, news clippings, and freshly shot footage from Wolf and Co, Spaceship Earth tells the wondrously magnificent story of John Allen; a Harvard alumni turned radical entrepreneur. Allen’s story is one of admirable friendship and bewildering character. Wolf details his numerous innovative escapades with his successful projects such as Synergia Ranch and Research Vessel Heraclitus. Keep in mind this is only the first half of Spaceship Earth. The second half of the feature details the strenuous planning, execution, and ultimate downfall of Biosphere 2. A worldwide phenomenon turned head over heels due to numerous media frenzies and management breakdowns, this classic tale of over ambition is evident in the remorseful sentiments of Wolf’s subjects and interviews.
With Owen Pallet’s boastful and symphonic score powering through Spaceship Earth’s near two hour runtime, and the occasional funky pop needle drops ranging from Can to the Talking Heads, the upbeat grandiose melodies of the film’s soundtrack ultimately add an additional flavor to the film’s direction. The documentary itself is incredibly lengthy, though entirely justified due to it’s towering tale of scientific enthusiasm. In fact, I would argue that the film was a little on the short side for it’s subject, and focused on a few to many unneeded elements. This includes but is not limited to the humorous addition of Allen’s touring theater. It also doesn’t help that the film is incredibly conventional in presentation. Excluding the harrowing opening montage and epilogue, the film doesn’t hold much weight as a singular piece of investigative journalism. It just simply dissolves into the crowd of other average-executed and hollow documentaries based on a fascinating subject.
Don’t go into Spaceship Earth expecting a feat in documentary filmmaking. It’s an incredibly solid feature endeavor from Matt Wolf, and is arguably on the same wavelength of quality as his previous feature Recorder. For fanatics of biosphere technology and the long winded evolution and history of the Biosphere 2 project, this is a guaranteed fascinating viewing experience. For others, it may lack a certain artistic gut punch for it to be truly be classified as an outstanding piece of non-fiction entertainment.
Spaceship Earth is Now Available to Rent & Stream