There are few things more soothing and sardonic than hearing Werner Herzog opine about an impending apocalypse. Along with collaborator and co-director Clive Oppenheimer, the filmmakers provide a science-rich documentary freed from the didacticism of the genre, reveling instead in the true wonder and weirdness of our existence. Their previous film, Into the Inferno, gazed into the maw of active volcanoes, while their latest, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, looks at the impact that extra-terrestrial visitors have had on the history of our planet.
The focus is on meteors, those bits of astrological flotsam that engage in an infernal voyage through our atmosphere with sometimes spectacular effect. These are rocks that are falling from the sky onto the bigger rock we call home, and the results have often been truly earth-shattering.
The filmmakers globetrot to various continents, from the cold plains of Antarctica to the rooftop of a European building where a new form of exploration is taking place, to seek out alien rocks. Throughout the film Herzog provides his usual, laconic narration shtick, undercutting the usual magisterial tropes (“I’m not stardust, I’m Bavarian”), to talk of the “God forsaken” beach towns of Mexico’s Yucatan that serve as ground-zero for the impact that led to the rise of mammalians.
It’s clear that the film was assembled in a slightly haphazard way, with the balance between Oppenheimer’s on-screen discussions and Herzog’s snide asides sometimes resulting in a friction of tone. Yet on the whole the trick works, with the knowledgeable and affable scientist and sarcastic yet deeply engaged filmmaker providing a more rounded view of this topic.
The collision between Herzog’s more poetic take and the grounded scientific approach of Oppenheimer is further complicated when clear and overt claims are made that are in dispute. For example, the Black Stone at the corner of Mecca’s Kaaba is describes as “almost certainly” a meteorite, a claim buttressed by 19th century research but rejected by many contemporary geologists who claim instead it to be a “pseudometeorite”. This is a small, perhaps pedantic criticism, but it does illustrate how there’s a certain lack of rigour for some aspects of the story telling in favour of an entertaining story, while at others it’s clear that the science is at the fore.
The talking-head participants run the range from eager amateurs to entrenched experts, with the result that equal weight tends to be given to the rigorously researched claims versus slightly more starry-eyed pronouncements. The merging of the mystical with the observational works best with the testimony of certain participants, and particularly insightful comments are made by the Vatican’s resident meteor expert. In the work and beliefs of this one man we find a concise illustration of the competing yet complimentary views on the origins and nature of heavenly objects.
The film works best when it shows not only the world in a new way, but also our fascination with these types of events. It’s these collisions of tone that makes the film fun, where broad scientific discussion and the thrill of discovery is paired with the likes of Deep Impact, all to show the shared giddiness. There’s something clearly profound in the connection between popular culture’s destruction fetish merges and the geophysical inevitability of mass extinction events outside our control.
While the film as a whole is slightly haphazard, and the revelations are relatively few, there’s still a strong sense of engagement and excitement that illustrates better than most the thrill of discovery and the scope of what these humble rocks represent. For millennia we’ve looked to the stars for answers, and in a quite profound way Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds shows that many of our deepest questions can be answered by looking down at what’s right in front of us instead.
/Film Rating: 7 out of 10
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