Movie review: Werner Herzog keeps watching the skies
If you’re familiar with, and enjoy, the documentaries by the prolific director Werner Herzog, here’s another one to catch. If you’ve seen his films and didn’t cotton to them, this one’s not for you. If your plan is to make “Fireball” your first attempt at a piece of Herzog non-fiction, you might want to start with an earlier, more accessible one ... say, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” “Grizzly Man,” or “Encounters at the End of the World.”
So, now that I’ve alienated anyone who’s not a Herzog-ist, and hopefully piqued the interest of his loyalists, here’s a non-review of “Fireball,” a film that gets into how meteorites and comets have made both physical and cultural impact on our planet and people. Co-directed by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who has collaborated with Herzog - as an on-camera subject - twice before, the film traverses locations in India, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Norway, France, Antarctica, and the U.S. to check out areas where they’ve crashed, and meet experts on the subject.
But I’m going to let Mr. Herzog tell what’s in store for you. Conjure up, in your mind, his soft, lilting, German-accented voice, one that seems to be asking questions as it shares knowledge, theories, and opinions - always thoughtfully, often humorously. Here are some bits of his narrated soliloquies:
“Each one of these stones from darker worlds out there has its own story.”
“Meteorites have hit our planet all the time, and the bigger ones have changed entire landscapes.”
“Mérida, on the Yucatan Peninsula, is ground zero of the biggest cataclysm that ever occurred on our planet. A whole asteroid hit right here, millions of years ago.”
(At a field in Alsace) “In the 15th century, world history was shaped here because the Hapsburg Empire earned legitimacy through a falling piece of rock.”
“We had to go to where the most colossal fireball came down - a place with an unpronounceable name in Mexico.” (The camera points to a sign: Chicxulub.)
“What came down here had the force of hundreds of millions, possible thousands of millions, of atomic bombs - Hiroshima-size. Nothing out here is reminiscent of it. Only leaden boredom weighs upon everything.”
(Referring to the Scott Expedition to Antarctica) “They endured a whole winter huddling in an ice cave nine feet across. They were starving and freezing in squalor, surviving on seal meat and a ration of one biscuit a day. From diaries of Scott’s men, we know they dreamt of banquets that were ripped away from their ready forks.”
(Regarding a discussion of natural quasi-crystals found in meteorites) “It gets so complicated, we are not going to bore you with details.”
“Fireball: Visitors from a Darker World” is not one of Herzog’s best documentaries. It will more than hold your interest, but it meanders a bit more than his usual fare, and would have benefited by having fewer locales, a bit more focus and information on each one, and a stronger attempt at tying it all together to form a smoother narrative. Oppenheimer is a good on-camera interviewer, and his own excitable fascination with the subject matter is compelling, but a couple of the scientific folks he speaks with are a tad dull, and their time on camera could have been shortened.
Still, there’s some amazing footage, not of fiery objects shooting through the skies, but of the places they’ve landed and the results of their landing, captured in spots ranging from a Hindu Temple inside a meteor crater to a vast white field of ice by longtime Herzog cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger. All of that pales, of course, when compared to the film’s main asset: Herzog’s hypnotic voice.
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” premieres on Apple TV+ on Nov. 13.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”
Written by Werner Herzog; directed by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer
With Clive Oppenheimer and the voice of Werner Herzog