While Joe Exotic is already something of a fading cultural phenomenon, it’s hard to put “Tiger King” entirely out of memory while watching “Spaceship Earth.” “Spaceship Earth” — a documentary following a group of countercultural entrepreneurs and their eccentric leader — feels in some ways like an anti-“Tiger King.” Though it features an equally colorful ensemble cast and has a similar flair for the sensational, “Spaceship Earth,” with its unbridled passion and optimism, stands in stark contrast to the cynical and pseudo-political attitudes of “Tiger King.” This optimism is what really stands out about “Spaceship Earth”: The film never loses sight of the wondrous, egalitarian spirit central to its story.
The documentary follows a commune of artists and environmental activists in its various endeavors, the most significant of which is the construction of the Biosphere 2 in 1991, a massive 3.14-acre closed system vivarium meant to simulate an ecosystem similar to Earth’s. The maiden experiment of the Biosphere 2 — to seal eight “biospherians” inside for two years — quickly becomes a media sensation. Is the Biosphere 2 a worthwhile ecological experiment, or is the whole thing just an elaborate, pseudoscientific publicity stunt?
For better or worse, “Spaceship Earth” decidedly leans toward the first answer. While this choice is certainly informed by the documentary’s promising tone, framing its leads as scrappy and hardworking activist underdogs, it leads to several dubious moments, in which the film struggles to justify aspects of the project and its participants that have since been criticized. None of this is to say that “Spaceship Earth” isn’t worth checking out: Though as a film it may have its shortcomings, the story it tells is ultimately too unique and fascinating to overlook.