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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

This documentary is a poetic, scientific, and philosophical meditation on how meteors and comets have influenced ancient religions, cultures, and topographies around the world. Journeying from the Australian desert to France, India, the Bering Strait, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Antarctica, it ponders the multiple meanings humanity has associated with otherworldly debris and the craters it leaves behind.

The film is co-directed by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer. The latter conducts the interviews, and the former narrates with his trademarked, endlessly entertaining voice-over/stream of consciousness style — of one interviewee Herzog says, "[he] could have continued [talking], without getting boring, nonstop for the next eight hours," sounding as if he has actually timed it; conversely, of another expert's explanation, Herzog assures us that "it gets so complicated now that we are not going to torture you with details." Ha!

But perhaps the most oxymoronic moment, both deeply solemn and sarcastically funny, occurs when the film visits the town of Chicxulub in Yucatan, Mexico (famous for being near the geographic center of a crater discovered on the Yucatan Peninsula and stretching into the ocean, created by the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of all non-avian dinosaurs), which Herzog describes as "a beach resort so godforsaken you want to cry" (a tour of its derelict streets shows that the German isn’t too far off).

Other herzogian idiosyncrasies include apparent editing lapses; e.g., a close-up of an indigenous Australian artist with a fly hovering over her face, and Oppenheimer carelessly wiping his nose with a handkerchief in the middle of an interview.

Such incidents are neither accidental nor coincidental. Herzog is no less calculating than the average documentary filmmaker, but he is also more honest, and it’s no secret that what the filmmaker strives to achieve is what he calls an "ecstatic truth" ("deeper strata of truth in cinema ... mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization," as defined in Herzog’s "Minnesota Declaration").

Fireball includes a direct reference to Little Dieter Needs to Fly and, by extension, to Rescue Dawn; a line about bears "that don't just exist in nightmares, but are actually out there." Moreover, the image of the filmmakers descending a narrow mountain path is reminiscent of Aguirre, the Wrath of God.

PS. You may have noticed that I've said almost nothing about meteorites in a review of a movie about them; then again, you need not be an astronomy buff to enjoy Fireball, not least because Herzog’s enthusiasm is as contagious as ever.