Dir: Werner Herzog, UK/France/Germany, 81 mins
Cast: Brad Dourif, Franklin Chang Diaz, Roger Diehl, Ted Sweetser, Martin Lo, STS-34 crew
Myth, chaos and an ambiguous meld of fact and fiction have habitually come to define eccentric, visionary German director Werner Herzog’s work, and the man himself. Concerning the latter, Herzog tales have ingrained themselves into film folklore; being shot during a BBC interview, diving into a cactus field and a bet that resulted in short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe (1980). However, it would be unfair to let any dwarf the oeuvre of this resolutely independent and single-minded film-maker. From sensitive documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) through to the epic, histrionic journeys of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Klaus Kinski’s megalomaniacal protagonist in both playing surrogate to the directors own instinctive pandemonium ethos, Herzog has worked tirelessly since the early 1960’s demonstrating an eclectic range.
The Wild Blue Yonder adds further weight to the oft quoted adage that Herzog can make a film out of anything. Here he combines documentary footage from NASA’s STS-34 mission and diving footage fromRossSea,Antarctica. A backbone is granted through monologues delivered by an alien (Dourif) who recounts the arrival, on a now desolate, defunct earth, of his species from water planet Andromeda after a severe ice age forced them to leave. Inside access from a job at the CIA enables him to tell of a subsequent space mission by the ailing human race to find his home planet in the hope that it will prove inhabitable.
Any initial preconceptions and vague narrative similarities to other aquatic sci-fi fare such as The Abyss (1989) are quickly dispatched. Herzog’s “science-fiction fantasy” is a slight shaggy dog tale that toys with footage and history for its own purposes. The historical aspect takes in a fantastical journey encompassing the Roswell incident and heavy but plausible science spiel is provided by NASA boffins. A tongue-in-cheek air resides throughout; the unassuming, straight-laced Franklin Chang-Diaz is introduced as a “rogue mathematician who kept the secret of a breakthrough invention to himself”. Dourif provides an engaging, neurotic turn, punctuating each revelation in the tale with “I could have told them, I knew all about it” and rightly bemoaning the concept of shopping malls being constructed on Andromeda.
In terms of the director’s back catalogue it can be seen to reiterate the same aesthetic ideals as the Gulf War orientated Lessons in Darkness (1992), which also splits itself into chapter headings. This had a more traditional documentary edge, but whilst aiming for the political Herzog’s preoccupation with nature, a central theme throughout his work, remains resonant. The Wild Blue Yonder takes the power of nature full circle from a possibly post-apocalyptic planet, space, the aquatic Andromeda and back to an earth replenished to its original prehistoric genesis.
Henry Kaiser’s diving footage works sublimely within the film’s narrative boundaries truly evoking an awe which CGI could never replicate. An otherworldliness is rendered with a synthesis of greens and blues, bright pockets of light splitting through murky clouds. The sequence of the astronauts dissolving into particles and passing through the tunnel of time is particularly affecting, the scene filmed in close up, bubble’s rushing towards the camera as a blinding white light bleaches out the individual.
Herzog thanks NASA “for their poetry” but the on-board space mission footage feels over stretched. The isolation and mundanity of space travel is evoked and this links in with the narrative thread of insanity setting in. Regrettably this still feels like footage used to fill a void in the middle section. Ernst Reijseger contributes a haunting, ethereal score throughout with collaborations from African artist Mola Syall and a Sardinian shepherd choir. An ecological warning, a chronicle of mankind’s need to explore, poem to the power of nature or an elaborate practical joke? The Wild Blue Yonder is an experimental, ramshackle patchwork of arguably all the above, Herzog’s scattershot, improvisational approach ensuring that limited means need not affect the realms of imagination.