Saturday, November 14, 2020


It speaks to how much we can trust Werner Herzog’s perspective that when he makes a documentary about meteorites and it becomes an intermingling of the spiritual and scientific it feels exactly right. We know he’s not proselytizing or imbuing hard fact with squishy woo-woo sentiment. His soothing voice and great eye, not to mention his wry humor and patient inquisitive style, draws us naturally into his deeper contemplation. It’s a state of total openness to the universe and its natural wonders. He’s fascinated by what we can know, but he’s just as drawn to to the limits of what we can know. He’s been on a roll with these deep dives this decade—cave paintings (Cave of Forgotten Dreams), death row (Into the Abyss), the internet (Lo and Behold) and more. Now, for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, he speaks to people who have spent their lives studying space debris that falls to earth. (Who else but Herzog would ask so simply if people get hit by them often, and not mean it entirely as a joke?) With Cambridge scientist Clive Oppenheimer as his guide and host, Herzog examines notable craters, places where, over the centuries, temples were erected, museums were established, great research took place, and striking art was made. He takes us to labs in Arizona, the Pope’s summer residence —where a notable observatory is run by a Jesuit geologist—and a Norwegian jazz musicians micrometeorites hobbyist collection. He takes us to a tiny Mexican town where the dinosaurs’ fatal blow was struck—only Herzog could call a place “so godforsaken it makes you cry” without sounding insulting. They drop down into caves Mayans thought were entrances to the underworld. He takes us to rural France and Mecca, Antartica and Africa. He’s a man of the world. 

Throughout, staying mainly off camera or delivering his mellifluous pondering as voice over, he emphasizes how extraordinary it is that these chunks of outer space fall to our planet. In fact, they fall all the time, often just dust in the wind, drawn down through the vagaries of time and space to land in what quite literally might be your backyard. Some of the grandest mysteries of all creation softly dropped around us. But in his typical way, he’s just as interested in how these mysteries change our humanity—our recognition that we’re part of something bigger. He knows these celestial objects have shaped how we think about ourselves, and beyond ourselves. And he’s also a terrific guide to these thoughts, entertaining little jokes and asides, per usual, and focusing his camera on interesting details every step of the way—a grinning museum patron, a crumbled shack, a ritual, a clip from Deep Impact. Herzog presents a world that is broad and interconnected, where any one fascinating subject seems to open up endless avenues for wonder.

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