Werner Herzog has always thirsted for the uncanny. It’s there in the primal awe he imparted to a grizzly bear in “Grizzly Man,” the cracked rapture of Klaus Kinski’s glowering megalomaniacal conquistador in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” and the mysteriously intoxicating natural ice-sculpture formations of “Encounters at the End of the World.”
In his new documentary, “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” Herzog hits us with an image in the first two minutes that’s as jaw-droppingly whoa! as any footage you’ve ever seen of a UFO that convinced you, for just a moment, that it was a genuine alien visitation. We see dash cam footage, shot on a highway in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, in 2013, of a fire-light meteor streaking across the sky and plunging toward earth, like an airliner crashing right before our eyes. We witness the fireball photographed from assorted locations and angles — roadways, a public square — as Herzog, speaking in his inimitable I-overenunciate-because-that’s-how-I-express-my-Teutonic-ecstasy voiceover, says that it looks just like science fiction. He’s right.
“Fireball” is a documentary about meteorites, but what makes it a Herzog film is that it’s in love with meteorites. It sees them not as random pieces of cosmic debris but as visitations from the world out there. And it’s not only Herzog who sees them that way. He’s channeling how people have always viewed meteors and meteorites — as larger-than-life forces exerting their energy upon the earth.
Early on, Herzog journeys to the Australian desert to visit Wolf Creek Crater, the site of an ancient massive meteor impact, one kilometer in diameter, that wasn’t discovered until 1947, when it was glimpsed from the air. Ruminating on that perfectly circular hole in the earth, Herzog imagines the cataclysm that caused it, and so do we. These spectacular collisions occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago, and some of them shaped the narrative of the planet — like the one that, in all likelihood, helped to wipe out the dinosaurs. In “Fireball,” meteors aren’t just big flaming rocks from space; they’re rocks that can write history. And that, suggests Herzog, is why human beings have always worshipped them.
He shows us cell-phone close-ups of Muslim crowds surging forward to touch and kiss the Black Stone, the obsidian rock (made up of several smaller fragments) that’s set into the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the ancient building at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Is it a meteorite? Many believe so (there’s no reason to think it isn’t), and Herzog records this ritual as an image of mankind in thrall to the fusion of death and destiny inherent in that rock.
In sequences like these, Herzog revels in the poetry of meteorites. And he earns it, since his mystic curiosity is, at heart, rooted in a respect for science. His co-director, Clive Oppenheimer, is the chipper and inquisitive British volcanologist with whom he collaborated on “Into the Inferno” (2016), and Oppenheimer, traveling with Herzog to key meteor sites around the world (they go from France to India to the Bering Straits to Antarctica), talks to a series of nerdishly possessed scientific luminaries, and to some quirkier mandarins as well, like Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Jesuit planetary scholar who presides over the Vatican observatory at the Pope’s summer residence at Park of Castel Gandalfo, Italy. As a grad student, Brother Guy saw Comet West, and in his words “It was big and it was scary.” To him, the science of it all is inextricable from the wonder.
Herzog would say the same thing, though there are moments in “Fireball” when he lapses into a visitors-from-the-beyond mode that’s a shade away from the wide-eyed ’70s cheesiness of “Chariots of the Gods.” More than that, the film has a definite wonkish side. It’s enthralled by the fact that meteorites, which are mostly small dark rocks of iron, contain organic molecules (amino acids, sugars) that are the building blocks of life, even as they arrive from the enigmatic void of space. One of the film’s subjects, Jon Larsen, is Norway’s most famous jazz guitarist but appears to spend a share of his Saturday nights studying close-up photographs of meteorite crystals that are as different from each other as snowflakes. This is a movie, in part, about people who get excited by particles. It’s a far cry from “Deep Impact.”
Yet Herzog, to his credit, includes a clip from “Deep Impact,” the 1998 asteroid-hits-the-earth thriller, which he calls “beautifully done.” To him, a movie like that one speaks to our collective obsession with the destructive aspect of creation. He and Oppenheimer visit Chicxulub, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, the site of the largest meteor impact ever recorded, 66 million years ago, when an asteroid 10 kilometers wide came hurtling to earth, forging a crater that stretches 100 kilometers in each direction. The place, says Herzog, is now “a beach resort so godforsaken you want to cry.” And one effect of all this meteor meditation is to make individual humans seem very small indeed. But another effect is to make them loom up large — as pinpoints on a continuum of time. It’s in that way that “Fireball” has a deep impact.