A consummate showman who would happily bungee jump into Hell with a camera in his hands just for the joy of narrating that footage, Werner Herzog was a legendary filmmaker long before the breakout success of “Grizzly Man” saw him reborn as a living meme — as a morbidly hilarious mouthpiece for the savagery of a world that doesn’t think you’re special. Somewhere between pulling Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck, brushing off a bullet wound in the middle of an on-camera interview, and coming to the deadpan conclusion that Timothy Treadwell was eaten alive by his bear friends because “the common denominator of the universe is chaos, hostility, and murder,” this titan of New German Cinema became a human version of the “this is fine” dog.
Not that Herzog seemed to mind. Not only did the new cachet make it possible for him to be more prolific than ever before, such memeification also felt like a strangely fitting reward for a man who’s spent his entire life aspiring to become a myth (and has never been shy about perpetuating that myth himself). After decades of laughing at the mercilessness of death, Herzog stumbled upon a characteristically ecstatic way to survive it. His singular brand of nihilism will outlive us all.
But for now Herzog is still in his body, and it’s hard to imagine that he’ll be leaving it behind any time soon. With the pesky matter of his own immortality out of the way, it stands to reason that he should turn his attention to the nuts and bolts of what eternity might entail. To the end of our species. To what Carl Sagan called “starstuff.” A documentary about meteors and what they might be able to tell us about the mysteries of deep space… well, at this point in Herzog’s career it might be the closest thing to a logical next step. No other filmmaker has been so eager to stare death in the eyes, and so there ought to be something poignant about Herzog — almost 80, and his inimitable voice starting to thin — confronting the inevitable with his usual stoicism.
But there isn’t. Not quite. In stark contrast to 2016’s “Into the Inferno” — the other film that Herzog has made with University of Cambridge professor Clive Oppenheimer, who earns his own co-director credit here — “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” feels strangely impersonal. Not incurious (Herzog considers boredom to be a character flaw, and wouldn’t dream of allowing his own to seep through the screen), but somehow divested, as if all this talk about cosmic dust and non-existence only concerns him indirectly.
On the one hand, it’s easy to forgive Herzog for not being able to wrap his mind around a world without him in it; if making five movies with Klaus Kinski didn’t kill him, it’s hard to imagine what possibly could. On the other hand, “Fireball” splinters into so many scattered pieces as it hurtles into our atmosphere that it almost seems as if the movie is trying to ignore any of the harder truths that might hold it together. Herzog’s documentaries have grown shaggier and more episodic over time, but this one is often lost in space without him on screen as its star.
Maybe it’s just not as fun with Oppenheimer as his avatar. While the professor is as engaging and amiable as ever, Herzog’s shtick has never worked as well with an understudy; each time his voiceover narration starts musing about “the silent vastness of the Australian desert” or a Mexican beach resort “so godforsaken you want to cry,” you can’t help but feel his absence more acutely onscreen. It’s a relief, then, that Herzog’s eye for eccentric characters hasn’t dulled a bit; even his most science-minded documentaries have always been shaped by an anthropological bent, and “Fireball” (which might be the most science-minded of them all) is no exception.
The film takes us from Wolfe Crater in the outback to the Ensisheim meteorite in France, the Pan-STARRS Operational Center in Hawaii, the roof of a sports arena in Oslo, and of course the spot in the Yucatán Peninsula where the Chicxulub impactor landed some 66 million years ago and likely wiped out all the dinosaurs, but for all that globetrotting it’s still the people who stand out. Even the fake ones. Among the funniest moments in a movie that could have benefited from a slightly lighter touch: A visit to the Ensisheim museum, where a muscular animatronic mannequin named John offers an astronomy lecture that ends with the robot conceding “I’m not a prophet, I’m just a miner.”
Elsewhere, Herzog introduces us to a Norwegian jazz musician who’s obsessed with rocks, an ex-pat geologist who dresses like Wyatt Earp and has beaten cancer four different times, a jolly Catholic priest who sees God in the detritus that rains down from the heavens, and — somewhere in the wild blue yonder of Antarctica’s ice fields — a Korean scientist who’s so emotionally involved in his work that he weeps at the discovery of each new meteorite.
In between these interviews, Herzog and Oppenheimer interrogate what space debris might tell us about where life came from, and where it might be going. “Meteorites have meaning,” one subject offers, “and the task of humanity is to determine what that meaning is.” It’s a task that takes “Fireball” into the histories and faiths of a number of different cultures, an approach that allows for one scene to focus on the Day of the Dead, and another to steal a glimpse at the Black Stone at the heart of Mecca. Most of these ethnographic asides feel like glorified excuses for Herzog to fly to some of his favorite places, and don’t scrape under the surface in a way that allows them to echo off each other.
More interesting — at times — are the film’s broader scientific takeaways. Someone muses that a meteorite is the oldest thing that any human has ever touched, which is humbling in the way that has always delighted Herzog about the natural world. Some of these rocks still carry the scent of distant planets that exploded millions of years ago; if they can carry a smell through deep space, is it possible they might be able to carry life, as well? Such questions, in this context anyway, are more tantalizing in the abstract. Endless letters about “quasi crystals” and the arcane mysteries of metal will put off all but the most geologically predisposed viewers long before Herzog interjects to say “we’re not going to torture you with details.”
Astrophysicists might get a kick out of this stuff, but the rest of us have to sit through a lot of impenetrable analysis before Herzog throws us a bone by visiting the people who are entrusted with keeping the Earth safe from asteroids. If you learn anything from this documentary, it will be that nukes would be more effective at steering an asteroid off course than they would be at blowing it up from the inside out. Suspicions that Herzog can’t stand “Armageddon” are confirmed when he introduces the ending of “Deep Impact” as an example of the existential fear that audiences crave. The commentary track Herzog cuts for the scene where Téa Leoni gets obliterated by a tidal wave (“this is beautifully done!”) is as bitingly funny as anything he’s ever filmed, and almost enough to compensate for the fact that he’s almost entirely absent on screen.
I say almost, because there’s one notable exception — one moment where you see his hand break into the frame. It happens around halfway into “Fireball,” as a scientist paraphrases the aforementioned Sagan quote about the cosmic particles we’re all fated to become. “I’m not stardust,” Herzog interjects with the self-amused laugh of a dad who can’t stop himself from telling an awful joke, “I’m Bavarian!” At this point in a life that has come to seem as legendary and deathless as any of the myths that “Fireball” illuminates, that awful joke is only funny because it feels ecstatically true.
“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ later this year.