By Leah Greenblatt
May 07, 2020 at 06:48 PM EDT

It sounded like a great adventure; one giant terrestrial leap for mankind. Instead, it became a punchline, and a Pauly Shore movie.

That's the broad outline of Biosphere 2, the earthbound experiment that launched to great fanfare in 1991, aiming to show the world the kind of self-sufficient life that might be possible on other planets. Eight eager residents entered the sealed-off dome in Oracle, Ariz., in the midst of a media frenzy; when they emerged two years later, all they had proved, really, was the eternal fallibility of human endeavor.

It's a fascinating story, this clash of 1960s idealism with the cold realities of modern science, though not one that director Matt Wolf (Wild Combination: A Story of Arthur Russell) is fully able to bite off and chew in Spaceship Earth, his fitfully enthralling but frustratingly incomplete documentary.

The roots of it all begin with a charismatic figure named John Allen, an Oklahoma-born ecologist and engineer whose more out-there ideas found anchor in the free-flowing radicalism of late-'60s San Francisco. Soon he and his growing group of young acolytes left the increasingly commodified Bay Area behind for a ranch in New Mexico, then on to Europe and beyond, where they got by as a traveling performance troupe who bankrolled themselves with various forays into freelance capitalism on the side.

One of those ideas, a sort of miniaturized eco-utopia that could serve as a prototype for future space colonies, gained the support of a Texas billionaire named Ed Bass. He helped them build Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1, if anyone asked, was the earth itself), a place that did indeed look like a "prefab paradise," with its contained wonderland of self-supporting flora and fauna tended by eight jauntily jumpsuited terranauts.

In archival news clips, talking heads from Diane Sawyer and Tom Brokaw to Golden Girl Rue McClanahan (who knew?) alternately marvel at and question the group's grand undertaking. Early on, Peter Jennings sets the scene when he intones, "Its designers say it's science. Its detractors say it's a tourist attraction, run by questionable characters."

There are indeed heavy intimations that what Allen was leading was less a social and scientific experiment than a straight-up cult, though it's one of many questions here too often left to loose ends. Like why is NASA's stance on it never mentioned, or the participation of any other government agency? What exactly went on inside during those two long years, other than a few brief, self-consciously staged clips of biosphere residents dancing in the dining hall or thoughtfully examining leaves?

That the narrative raises so many questions is testament to how much there is to tell: The eccentric characters! The endless infighting! Those jumpsuits! It's just a shame that so much of it remains tantalizingly untold — and that what really happened in that dome, alas, may have to stay there; a wild curiosity still, in the end, half lost to history. B-

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