This picture, “Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds,” is the third Werner Herzog movie to come out in 2020. Yes, he directed it alongside Clive Oppenheimer, but still. At age 78, Herzog’s productivity almost recalls that of his long-gone colleague and compatriot Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who had more feature films to his name than years lived when he died in 1982 at age 37.
Herzog has to be at least reasonably good at self-care to maintain not just his filmmaking pace but his globe-trotting. Like his most recent release, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” this movie was shot around the world, including the Torres Strait Islands, Castel Gandolfo in Italy, Antarctica, Arizona and Hawaii. But it’s his intellectual curiosity and emotional availability that make his movies sing. This film rests on the fact that Mother Earth is always being called on by other worlds in the forms of comets, meteorites and asteroids — and it’s about as transportive as documentaries get.
Oppenheimer is a volcanologist from the University of Cambridge who first appeared in Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World,” a spectacular Antarctica trip, in 2007. He was later in Herzog’s “Into the Inferno,” in 2016, about, well, volcanoes. Cataclysmic fire has a special place in Herzog’s filmography; his remarkable “Lessons of Darkness” (1992) treated the burning oil fields of Kuwait, set ablaze by Saddam Hussein, as an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario.
“Fireball” looks at fire coming from the sky. But it begins very much on the ground, in Mérida, Mexico, at a celebration of the Day of the Dead. Men with painted faces perform what Herzog describes as a “fireball ritual,” derived from ancient Mayan culture; it “feels like a re-enactment,” he says. The site where they dance is one where an asteroid changed the topography millions of years ago.
Oppenheimer is the onscreen interviewer and explainer for much of the movie. He shows places where meteorites affected both landscape and culture. In the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, for instance, a black stone embedded in the Kaaba, the cube at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque, is the subject of adulation; it is believed that the stone fell from paradise to show Adam and Eve where to build a shrine, according to Muslim tradition. Similarly, in Ensisheim, a commune in the Alsace region of France, a meteorite that landed in 1492 was seen as “an email from God,” Oppenheimer says.
The movie introduces us to fascinating people — among them a jazz musician turned geological scientist and his research collaborator, who survived cancer four times and dresses like Wyatt Earp. It also teems with beautiful visuals illustrating mind-boggling mathematical concepts. “It gets so complicated now, we are not going to torture you with details,” Herzog drolly notes at one point.
And “Fireball” makes two very credible statements. One: that, hippie rhetoric notwithstanding, you and I really are made of stardust. And two: that a world-changing (as in probably obliterating) dark-world visitor is sooner or later going to come this planet’s way. The equanimity with which Herzog and Oppenheimer’s movie frames that certainty is strangely comforting.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.
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