‘Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds’ review: Werner Herzog’s cosmic musing

A lesson in intergalactic randomness from Germany's oddball film professor

“We’re all stardust, each element of us fused in space at a distant point in cosmic history,” says one geoscientist, just as a hand reaches out from behind the camera and taps her on the shoulder. “This was the only point in the whole documentary where I had to intervene – I could not resist,” drawls the thick German voice of Werner Herzog. “I am not stardust. I am Bavarian.” Fireball is a film about the history of meteorites, but as usual with a Herzog documentary, it’s more about odd obsessions, Herzog’s own curiosities and literally anything else that decides to wander into his head at the time – even weird dad jokes.

Herzog has picked up new fans recently after starring in season one of The Mandalorian (presumably to help fund stuff like this), but others will know him as the mad genius behind movies like Aguirre, Wrath Of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Grizzly Man (2005). Even if you haven’t seen his films, you might have heard the myths – being shot in the leg whilst chatting to Mark Kermode; running a film school that only teaches the art of lockpicking; rescuing Joaquin Phoenix from a car crash; refusing to ever look into his own eyes in a mirror… All, supposedly, true, and all part of what makes him so compelling to listen to talk about anything.

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‘Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds’ is a new documentary from Werner Herzog about meteors and comets. Credit: Apple TV+

“This is something the stupid, doc-trainer film schools would never allow,” he spits at one point – talking over the moment one polar geologist breaks down in tears with his back to the camera, an emotional wreck after years of research finally pays off. “It gets so complicated that we are not going to torture you with details”.

Meteorites, then, are the jumping off point for Fireball – taking Herzog down into Aboriginal craters, through corn fields in Alsace and onto the dirty roof of a football stadium in Oslo. Poking through puddles with a magnet in a sandwich bag (looking for space matter that might be hiding in the mud), Herzog lets Cambridge professor and co-director Clive Oppenheimer do the hard work – a voice of calm, studious reason next to the Bavarian’s constant cosmic musing.

Science and philosophy entwine as the pair hop around the globe looking at how space rocks have shaped history from the dinosaurs and the Mayans to the Hapsburgs and the most modern thinking on geode-crystal theory. Other eccentrics come and go (including one macro photography expert who dresses as Old West lawman Wyatt Earp for some reason) but Oppenheimer’s sparkling curiosity is the most infectious – explaining a genuinely fascinating story of intergalactic randomness that continues to have a formative effect on the life and death of the whole universe.

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Cambridge University professor Simon Schaffer with fellow academic and director Clive Oppenheimer. Credit: Apple TV+

This isn’t slick science – it’s dusty looking professors standing in front of blackboards, getting excited about shining lights on bits of dirt – but Herzog doesn’t make slick films. Just like his other great documentaries (Lessons Of Darkness, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, Encounters At The End Of The World) Fireball is rough-hewn, scrappily edited, too personal, saggy, baggy and full of oddness – but it’s also wonderfully honest and real. If you want a straight-up documentary about meteorites go and watch Brian Cox on the BBC. If you want to hear Herzog describing the Mexican town near the famous Chicxulub crater as “a place so godforsaken you want to cry”, watch Fireball.

Details

  • Director: Werner Herzog
  • Starring: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer
  • Release date: November 13 (Apple TV+)
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