AFI FEST 2020 REVIEW! “Each one of these stones from darker worlds out there has its own story,” Werner Herzog states with his distinct raspy accent in the movie Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which he co-directed with renowned volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer (who previously appeared in Herzog’s Into the Inferno). This documentary represents another chapter in the legendary German director’s ever-growing fascination with – and cinematic exploration of – the origins and future of our existence. While it may not be in the leagues of Grizzly Man or Encounters at the End of the World, the Master’s infectious awe radiates off the screen. He certainly treats space rocks with the same reverence he’s palpably felt toward bears and penguins.
Oppenheimer appears in most scenes, chatting with cosmologists, scholars, planetary scientists, enthusiasts, and aborigines, his conversations punctured by gorgeous interludes of stunning meteorites and awe-inspiring craters, scored to otherworldly majestic choruses. Oppenheimer and Herzog visit a spectacular variety of locations from Mexico and France to Norway and India. Although the bulk of the narrative consists of Oppenheimer’s conversations, which range from genuinely awe-inspiring to sleep-inducing, the highlights arrive in the places so sparse and alien, they speak for themselves.
One such place is the “godforsaken resort” of Chicxulub Puerto, Mexico, located at the center of one of the largest asteroid strikes that changed the course of life on Earth. As the brown ocean waves lap an abandoned beach behind Oppenheimer, he vividly describes what happened there millions of years before, and one can’t help but wonder why the place is such a ghost town now. Similarly, one of the final scenes, set in Herzog’s beloved Antarctica, where craters are visible among the vast plains of ice and snow, serves as one of the most memorable of Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds. No wonder these sequences resonate the most; desolation, after all, is Herzog’s forte.
“…legendary German director’s ever-growing fascination with – and cinematic exploration of – the origins and future of our existence…”
There are plenty of cosmic gems to be found throughout the great auteur’s documentary. Fascinating cell-phone footage reveals worshippers in Mecca, desperate to kiss the mysterious stone cast from God. An Oslo jazz musician collects micrometeorites on a rooftop and consequently examines them under the microscope (“Dust is the currency of the cosmos”). The interaction between science and religion is explored through the prism of these rocks. Then there are the expected ruminations over what we’re going to do if a large asteroid decides to hurl itself at us. Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds even somehow manages to make something as dull-sounding as searching for naturally-formed quasicrystals semi-enticing.
Of course, there are the typically Herzogian aphorisms. “If something big were going to happen,” he states, “it will illuminate the sky even in daylight.” In another quiet moment, he ponders, “What if the human race became extinct? What would we leave for future astronauts of an alien galaxy to demonstrate that we would not leave a fallen comrade behind?” A professor’s lengthy speech gets muted, and Herzog intones: “The [professor’s] warning was justified. It, indeed, gets so complicated now, we’re not going to torture you with details…” When someone states, “We are all stardust,” Herzog has to intervene: “I think I’m not stardust, I’m Bavarian.” He apparently hates dogs (“The dogs here, like all dogs on this planet, are just too dimwitted to understand that three-quarters of all species were extinguished by the event right here”) and adores Deep Impact (“This is beautifully done”).
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is a bit more pragmatic, rambling, less lyrical, and not as laser-focused as Herzog’s previous documentaries. It’s fitting, then, that it’s coming to Apple TV+, as opposed to theater screens, where folks may have been lulled to sleep by the stunning imagery, complemented by the incessant discussion of space rocks. In the comfort of your home, however – where you can contemplate eternity and humankind and those particles endlessly floating through a vacuum, similarly to our cells and atoms, floating through our organisms – it’ll hit the spot.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds screened at the 2020 AFI Fest.
"…he apparently hates dogs... and adores Deep Impact"