The documentary about the destructive beauty of meteors is equal parts perplexing and engaging.
Is there any filmmaker who sounds more consistently in awe of the world’s total destruction than Werner Herzog? He’s more than earned a retrospective devoted entirely to cycles of destruction and life at this point in his career. Call it ‘Life After Death’. He would charitably find the pablum of its title worth a smile. After all, he’s still prone to tangents in his documentaries for prodding at blasphemous film school tenets or being an apologist for Roland Emmerich’s Armageddon also-ran Deep Impact. That’s the inevitable nature of talking about Herzog’s films; known as he is to leap from docu-fiction whatsits like Family Romance to the subject of this inquiry, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds.
His wry professionalism and empathy are a given – a continued emblem of his boundless curiosity – practically a co-existent with his severity in his role in memedom. Reuniting and co-directing with Into the Inferno’s Clive Oppenheimer (an ideal collaborator in his stalwart attention and unabashedly nerdy rapport), Fireball is unlikely to stand as a radical highlight in Herzog’s future career. Consider it a victory lap. He’s earned it many times over in his contributions to cinema whether you find them pandering to “transcendence” or evident of such. A globe-trotting adventure from the “God-forsaken” Mérida, Mexico to one of his perennial loves, Antarctica; this is self-indulgent as a matter of fact. It’s a reiteration of his ethos, and surely, there’s a familiar warmth like a wool sweater to his ominous musings as the camera pans and holds just a few ticks too long over eager subjects.
Meteorites are their fixation here, a perhaps charmingly on-the-nose evocation of his continued interests in the ways the minute and cosmic overlap. The material discoveries and more abstract questioning are not so much theoretical as possibly overlooked in the eyes of someone less versed in the subject matter(s). Here, that includes Quasicrystals, a microscopic texture whose naturally irregular arrangement is so complicated that it’s briefly visualized through two-dimensional tiles until the demonstrative material switches to a much more complicated looking Hoberman sphere and an accompanying muting of the conversation for Herzog’s own insistence that the discussion lost interest for a layman.
Fireball is unlikely to stand as a radical highlight in Herzog’s future career. Consider it a victory lap.
Appropriately, that level of arcane mathematics is mostly exciting to Herzog in relation to either the infectious ecstasy of the participants (A North Korean expedition to find a rock from outer space the size of a basketball ends in sobbing jags from its pioneering founders), ideologies standing in the face of common knowledge (faith and science are bedfellows with many of the participants), or the majesty of cultural traditions and apocrypha intersecting with the divine. That’s an unfair, cynical reduction of the film’s contents (and the density and richness of its attendant pieces) – but one that encapsulates the sheer, overwhelming vastness of Herzog’s interests within the film.
It’s all the more enjoyable and maybe a bit disappointing that the film is so immediate and approachable in spite of the discrete complexities. Compared to something like the somnambulant and dogmatically patient Cave of Forgotten Dreams or Family Romance, whose mundane, almost Abbas Kiarostami gestures lent it an unplaceable texture; Fireball is aching for friction. Its individual conversational and contextual spectacles and rapt attention avert accusations of the perfunctory – but this viewer’s nonplussed reaction is potentially always the curse of efficient predictability with someone known for a resting anarchy.
Is it likewise unfair to pause at the inclusion of Sigur Rós affiliate, Riceboy Sleeps, as a wallpaper for some of these moments in its casual, molded beauty? Especially as a companion to Ernst Reijseger’s sharper, verbose soundtrack work juxtaposing levitating strings and choral hymns worthy of the ancient, often alien, unknowns onscreen. Or, is it again a matter of unfair expectation that each of these haunts feel so well-traveled even as they’re contextualized in a way that underlines the way the camera has left a trace.
Everything here is worthy of discussion and examination. No tangent feels unplaced and each interview uncovers, or at least hints at a new facet of interest. And yet, it’s not too difficult to undo the film’s own goodwill in discussing it as a full experience. It’s one where each scene seems to evaporate as it finishes leaving behind only incredibly intelligent people bursting with knowledge. Its overflowing, but maybe I should re-watch Deep Impact.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds is now available on Apple TV+