Thirty-four years after Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Werner Herzog remains enthralled by the marvelous, mysterious power of nature. With The Wild Blue Yonder, the director crafts a “science fiction fantasy” with a mixture of NASA and underwater footage, interviews with scientists and mathematicians, and a staged monologue by Brad Dourif as a mournful extraterrestrial, the overriding message of this eccentric mélange having something to do with eco-conservation. Speaking amid a cluttered collection of man-made debris, Dourif recounts his alien race’s journey from Andromeda (the titular Wild Blue Yonder) to Earth, a trip spurred by his home world becoming encased in inhospitable ice, and the subsequent voyage by mankind—motivated by the discovery of an apparently lethal microbe found in the Roswell spaceship—back to Andromeda to find a new, inhabitable planet for humans. It’s a tale that, like last year’s Grizzly Man, Herzog tells with a combination of material shot by himself and by others, the latter coming primarily from 1989’s STS-34 Space Shuttle mission and Henry Kaiser’s arctic marine cinematography, both of which are drenched in Dutch cellist Ernst Reijsiger and Senegalese singer Mola Sylla’s haunting, otherworldly score (which also features a Sardinian chorus and excerpts from Handel’s opera Xerxes).
Herzog’s recontextualization of his balletic, slow-motion archival footage for a fictional story, when married to his Dourif-in-wasteland-USA segments, bestows the film—a spiritual ancestor of 1992’s Lessons of Darkness—with a spaced-out wistfulness for pasts, and homes seemingly lost forever. In considering the reasons behind humanity’s downfall, Dourif’s alien pinpoints the root causes as man’s cultivation of pigs and ascension of the mountains, an analysis that subtly, if strangely, speaks to The Wild Blue Yonder‘s lament for the desecration and destruction of the global environment—even as Dourif, perfectly cast as a frazzled, somber celestial being, argues that his own plans for an Earth outpost involved the construction of shopping malls, “the ideal colonization paradigm.” Narrative lucidity breaks down shortly after scientists begin discussing chaotic tunnels (a.k.a. wormholes) as both the controlling force in the universe and the means by which extensive space travel—such as to Alpha Centauri, which resides 4.5 light years away from us—is possible. Nonetheless, what gives the proceedings their dreamy, mesmerizing grandeur isn’t plot or thematic development, but rather Herzog’s manipulation of image and sound, with contemplative shots of ocean surface ice crusts (meant to resemble alien landscapes) and scenes of zero-gravity astronauts (recast as tragic time-space travelers) lending the film a weird and wondrous abstract beauty.