Continuation of his series of emotionally intelligent documentaries with a world tour, Werner Herzogs “Fireball: Visitors from darker worlds, “Which he co-directed with the volcanologist from Cambridge University Clive Oppenheimer and premiere on Apple TV +is a rich speculative study of the role of meteorites in religion, art, and society. While the film is a bit casual, jumping between ideas, Herzog and Oppenheimer show a deep curiosity about the role of otherworldly meteors in the creation of our planet and its possible destruction.
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Starting in Mérida, Mexico during a celebration of the Day of the Dead as costumed men re-enact a “fireball ritual,” “Fireball” often jumps around and moves from the Mexican celebration to Mecca, Saudi Arabia as The Black Stone, a meteorite, believed by the Muslim religion to go back to Adam and Eve, is visited by millions. From there, Oppenheimer and Herzog travel around the globe, from France to America in Antarctica, where meteors landed and interviewing the people they study.
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As an invisible narrator, Herzog acts as our interpreter, while the real protagonist is Oppenheimer, who acts as an interviewer in front of the camera. While Oppenheimer travels around the world and meets with various scientists who are both self-appointed and recognized, Herzog dryly contextualises by taking up Oppenheimer’s questions and creating a fascinating back and forth. In a scene in which a mathematician explains a particularly complex idea, Herzog interrupts it and tells the audience that he will not “torment” us with the details. This back and forth between Oppenheimer’s wonkishness and Herzog’s more short-lived approach fits the material well, as the film oscillates between questioning the science of meteors and their cultural relevance.
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When Oppenheimer and Herzog travel to the Vatican Observatory to interview Brother Guy, the Vatican’s planetary scholar, he aptly sums up his fascination for these otherworldly objects and states that his beliefs do not preclude his belief in other living worlds. Yet he sees science, faith and humanity as intertwined. In most cases, Herzog and Oppenheimer imitate this synthesis by skillfully drawing on interviews with scientists, artists and even film material from “Deep ImpactIronically, to show how meteors both express hope in the evolution of mankind and have the ability to end life as we know it.
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“Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” is more humane in dealing with meteors than the blockbuster films it generously references, but it’s still a bit scattered in its approach. As is so often the case, Herzog films everything that interests him and jumps from places to interview topics without transitions. While the film doesn’t exactly provide a lot of new information about the science behind meteors, Oppenheimer and Herzog’s deep interest in the subject holds the piece together.
Towards the end of the film, the two travel to Antarctica and embark on a research trip to find the remains of a meteor. Once the team finds the fragments, they explode with joy and cannot find words to convey what the discovery means to them. Why is this space rock so important to researchers? Herzog never gets around to answering this question instead of capturing the exuberance of the scientists. If you’re looking for an expository, check out Meteors. For those willing to spend more than ninety minutes with Herzog riffling over the wonders of space, “Fireball” is a heartfelt tribute to scientific exploration. [A-]
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds will be available on AppleTV + November 13th.