Review by Sean Boelman
Werner Herzog has an obvious and infectious fascination with the world that surrounds him, as is made obvious by his documentaries that are filled with appreciation for the planet and the people who inhabit it. However, in expanding his scope to a cosmic level in Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, along with geologist Clive Oppenheimer, he loses a lot of what makes his films so wondrous.
In the movie, Herzog and Oppenheimer explore meteors and comets from both a scientific and cultural perspective, with a focus on how they have impacted earth both literally and figuratively. And while those who are interested in outer space will undoubtedly be fascinated with the material, general audiences will likely reject the film’s technicality.
That isn’t to say that the movie is hard to understand — Herzog and his interviewees do a good job of explaining the scientific jargon as to allow those less scientifically informed viewers to understand what is being discussed. Still, it’s little more than a scientific colloquy for its hour and a half runtime.
Like so much of Herzog’s other work, this film questions our role in the greater picture, but in also attempting to explain the greater picture, it loses that much-needed personal touch. The most fascinating portions of the movie are those in which the filmmakers are exploring how these individual cultures saw and treated these astronomical phenomena.
Instead, Herzog seems to be taking a more environmentalist approach to the material. Of course, it’s nowhere near as gloom-and-doom as some of his more recent political work, but there’s obviously something here about the life of the universe, specifically in relation to our planet, and the message feels disappointingly conventional.
The film also doesn’t assert a clear subject. Herzog’s signature narration with his smooth voice obviously serves as the common thread, but some of the interviews are conducted by himself and others by Oppenheimer. The movie certainly would have been much more effective had it set a more concise focus.
Regardless, the film is as gorgeous as expected from Herzog, featuring plenty of beautiful nature shots that will leave the audience in awe of the world’s mightiness. And while Herzog unfortunately struggles to find the substance to back up the wonderful eye of his camera, it’s at least a pretty movie to look at.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds should have been another magnificent documentary from Werner Herzog, but instead it tries to do too much and feels like it isn’t doing enough at the same time. Still, the inner astronomer in all of us will find enough to enjoy to make it worth the watch.
Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds screened as a part of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival which ran September 10-19.