Review: ‘The Wild Blue Yonder’

Described in its credits as "science fiction fantasy," German maverick Werner Herzog's latest should stand as one of helmer's best efforts at smudging the lines between docu and fiction. Venice fest hit may prove too wild for wider distribution, but could soar as a niche release.

Described in its credits as “science fiction fantasy,” German maverick Werner Herzog’s latest, “The Wild Blue Yonder,” should stand with the likes of “Fata Morgana” and “Lessons of Darkness” as one of helmer’s best efforts at smudging the lines between docu and fiction. Entrancing and often funny pic spins tall tale about deep-space voyages to and from earth, via a mixture of original material, archive clips and footage shot in space by astronauts themselves. Achingly beautiful music by Ernst Reijseger completes ace package. Venice fest hit may prove too wild for wider distribution, but could soar as a niche release.

Monologues delivered straight to camera by a wild-eyed Brad Dourif suture together pic’s images from different sources. Dourif’s unnamed narrator states he’s an alien from the outer reaches of Andromeda, the wild blue yonder itself. Indicating a crumbling, abandoned burg behind him (location used is a ghost town south of L.A.), he explains he and his kind came to earth many years ago to build a settlement.

However, he asserts, in language not usually expected from extra-terrestrials, “the whole thing sucked — nobody came, nobody settled and no-body stopped…We aliens all suck.”

According to Dourif’s alien, he stayed on earth, got a job with the CIA, and watched as evidence from the Roswell incident was reopened. This is illustrated by cutaways to 16mm archive footage of trucks arriving at a depot, accompanied by spooky music. The release of seemingly dangerous alien microbes from the evidence — which “turned out to be not such a big deal” — prompted Earth’s leaders to send a manned probe, Galileo, into deep space to search for a new habitable planet.

This interstellar adventure is, in fact, previously unseen footage shot in 1989 aboard NASA spaceship STS-34 by the astronauts themselves — Donald Williams, Ellen Baker, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Shannon Lucid and Michael McCulley. They’re seen floating in zero gravity, doing ordinary things like eating, performing tests on one another and zipping themselves into wall-affixed sleeping bags. (The astronauts’ real mission on STS-34 was to launch the un-manned Galileo probe to Jupiter.)

However, haunting original music by Dutch jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger, ac-companied by the piercing voice of Senegalese thrush Mola Sylla singing in her native tongue, Wolof, and backed by Sardinian choir Tenore & Cuncordu de Orosei, turns these sequences a kind of celestial ballet, the floating rocket-jockeys becoming graceful dancers. Reijseger & Co.’s arrangements also underscore luminously blue underwater footage shot under an Arctic ice shelf by d.p. Henry Kaiser, which the narration posits as the home planet of Dourif’s alien, a liquid world under a frozen sky. Jellyfish and flakes of translucent ice become the planet’s alien creatures.

Meanwhile, back on earth, real math boffins Roger Diehl, Ted Sweetser and Martin Lo explain the physics of space travel, referring to authentic scientific concepts like “string theory” that only auds with post-doctorate in physics will understand. Whether the eggheads are totally in on the film’s joke isn’t clear.

Still, pic captures them with affection as they fuss over their equations on a whiteboard. One very comic edit segues from an underwater sequence to Lo sitting placidly with his eyes shut. At first, it looks he’s been transported by the Reijseger’s music; he’s actually just about to sneeze.

Film’s whimsical, experimental mix of fact and fiction — similar to recent Russian mockumentary “First People on the Moon” — seems primarily designed to amuse and delight auds. However, it also reasserts, in a lowkey way, one of Herzog’s favorite themes: The impersonal, irreducible otherness of nature, seen here as crushingly vast and beyond comprehension.

Speaking of deep-space voyages, the alien explains, “You can look out and see, other than points of light, there is no sense of being close to anything, so you are truly an island.” This will be pretty cold comfort for New Age viewers who might come to “Yonder” thinking they’re in for “Koyaanisqatsi”-style happy-hippy philosophy.

Tech credits are all tip-top, with rich sound design by Joe Crabb particularly worthy of mention. Running time is just right. Film is skedded to air on the U.K.’s BBC in a few weeks and has been pre-sold to a couple other Euro territories. However, it achieves maximum impact seen on the big screen.

The Wild Blue Yonder



A Werner Herzog Filmproduktion (Germany)/West Park Pictures (U.K.)/Tetra Media (France) production, in association with BBC, France 2. (International sales: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion, Munich.) Produced by Andre Singer. Executive producers, Lucki Stipetic, Christine Le Goff, Nick Fraser, Yves Jeanneau. Directed, written by Werner Herzog.


Camera (color/B&W, 16mm/DV-to-35mm), Tanja Koop, Henry Kaiser, the astronauts of STS-34, Klaus Scheurich; editor, Klaus Scheurich; music, Ernst Reijseger; sound (DTS Digital), Joe Crabb. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 4, 2005. Running time: 87 MIN. (English dialogue)


Brad Dourif, Donald Williams, Ellen Baker, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Shannon Lucid, Michael McCulley, Roger Diehl, Ted Sweetser, Martin Lo.
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