Documentary Review: Werner Herzog and the Asteroids — “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”

The totality of human existence might be summed up in the forlorn, inquisitive and sometimes playful narrations of the great German filmmaker, that keen-eyed observer of humanity Werner Herzog.

For his latest, the filmmaker who gave us “My Best Fiend” (about working with madman/actor Klaus Kinski), “Grizzly Man” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” travels the world with a Cambridge planetary scientist in search of meteorites, their impact on life on Earth — perhaps even as the source of life on Earth — and on human history.

In “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds,” Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer visit meteor craters in Australia, India and the Yucatan, travel to Mecca (via pilgrims’ cell phone video of touching the pre-Islamic sacred meteorite, “The Black Rock”) to Antarctica with scientists look for fresh meteors and to Norway where a jazz musician and amateur meteor hunter finds micrometeorites. They visit the quirky French Alsatian town of Ensisheim, where a 1492 meteor strike became famous for altering European history and is commemorated to this day.

His co-filmmaker, scientist Clive Oppenheimer, questions the legions of astronomers, meteor specialists and Planetary Defense (“killer” meteorite hunters) and natives in the Outback.

Herzog captures faces, and the spectacle of Mecca and the skull makeup word by participants of a Day of the Dead festival in Merida, Mexico, the exultation of scientists finding a fresh meteorite on the snow of a high plateau near the South Pole.

And Herzog narrates, comments on scientists who might be able to go on and on on their subject, “never boringly,” breaking off a digression into an “impossible form of matter” (quasi crystals) found in meteors with “Yes, it gets so complicated now that we’re not going to torture you with details.”

Then, there’s Paul Steinhart, once dragged to Siberia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in search of the early 20th century extraterrestrial explosion that leveled forests, even though his “outdoor experience did not extend beyond the lawns of Princeton.”

Herzog sets the travelogue scene in far away places like the shoreline of the Yucatan peninsula in the center of where the “dinosaur killer” asteroid struck eons ago.

“Chicxulub Puerto is a beach resort so godforsaken you want to cry…only leaden boredom weighs upon everything.”

That’s our Werner.

The narration tries a bit too hard this time out. It’s almost his sole presence in “Fireball,” so much so that you fret “He’s gotten too old to be making these journeys into the mystic himself” any more. But no. A single off-camera question lets us know he’s back on Antarctica, where he filmed “Encounters at the End of the World.”

But he’s still the most curious, empathetic and fascinating filmmaker the screen has produced. And if his curiosity is cave paintings from the Dawn of Man, the last days of the Grizzly Man, or our relationship to fireballs from the sky, we’re blessed to have him inviting us along as his traveling, investigating companion.

Cast: Narrated by Werner Herzog, with Clive Oppenheimer, Kelly Fast, Meenakshi Wadhwa, Jan Braly Kihle, Jon Larsen, Simon Schaffer and Paul Steinhart.

Credits: Directed by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, script by Werner Herzog. An Apple TV+ release.

Running time: 1:37

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