27 August 2007

The Wild Blue Yonder

Written & Directed by: Werner Herzog

Grade: C

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Werner Herzog, as the prolific documentarian that he's become, tried his hand at the faux-documentary. Well, why not? "Mockumentary" would be the wrong word to describe The Wild Blue Yonder, despite its familiarity and wide usage, as there's rarely a hint of humor in this mostly grave film. It posits itself as a bizarre secret history, conspiratorial in tone, of alien life on Earth and clandestine NASA experimentation. (Broadly, it's, as Herzog calls it, redundantly, "science fiction fantasy".) But Herzog seems to have forgotten—unless he just never knew—that effective science fiction's most essential ingredient is a liberal dash of potent subtext. There seems to be no purpose behind The Wild Blue Yonder's production, beyond Herzog, intoxicated by found footage, needing to flaunt his nifty discoveries like a school boy with a new toy. Want to come over later and watch my NASA reels?

You can't blame the guy for trying, as Herzog pulled off a masterpiece once before when overwhelmed by similarly mesmerizing inspiration, fashioning Grizzly Man while under the spell of Timothy Treadwell's digital video diaries. But one of that film's keys to success was that Treadwell was a real person, with all the benefits, in relation to making a documentary film, that that entails; here, Brad Dourif, in an admitted fine bit of casting, stars as our fictional extraterrestrial narrator, guiding us, mostly in voice-over, through long stretches of file footage, the lion's share of which is either of NASA-tronauts floating in space or arctic explorers under the sea. He dispenses a rather loopy narrative about scientists who, while investigating the suspicious aircraft that crashed at Roswell, became infected with alien microbes and were exiled from planet Earth, setting off into the cosmos in the hope of finding a hospitable region of space in which to settle anew, an interstellar Elba. Eventually, they find their way to Dourif and his people's home planet, the eponymous wild blue yonder, which the aliens had abandoned hundreds of years ago to resettle under the superior conditions of Earth. Under just the right circumstances, I imagine this film could be beguiling but, under ordinary conditions, Herzog's patient pacing—he lets the stock footage play out practically uninterrupted—feels torpid. Kubrick, it ain't; in attempting to bestow an ominous heft onto benign NASA film of astronauts mired in quotidian zero-gravity tasks, The Wild Blue Yonder feels like little else beyond a slight cinematic experiment in the nature of the image's significance and implication. How can he manipulate what you see?

But why is he even so keen on doing so? Herzog's assemblage revels in the two most mysterious regions of the planet/universe, in relation to those of us on solid land: the sky above and the sea below. "We thank NASA for its sense of poetry," titles read at the end of the film, "[and] we thank Mark Kaiser for venturing out under the frozen sky." The latter's video footage of his arctic sea diving explorations is passed-off as footage from Dourif's home planet, with strange-looking sea life convincingly, in its unfamiliarity, posited as alien life forms (mistreated, of course, by earth's explorers), speaking to how alien our own planet can seem to us, how unchartered and unexplored the vast regions of sea and space still are, even if all the land is well-cartographed. Admittedly, all of the accumulated film is fascinating, but the fictional context within which it's placed feels entirely unnecessary and doesn't assist in making the raw images anymore captivating or actually meaningful than they already are, or could be, on their own. In fact, it's a bit distracting.

But if he just has to make a movie out of it, at least Herzog uses the opportunity to take some umbrage at the pernicious actions, over time, of humanity at large; Dourif, with a suspiciously in-depth knowledge of earth history (got a lot of reading done on the spaceship?), offers a mordant analysis of the developments that'll eventually spell the end of humanity, putting most of the blame on the long-ago mistake, apparently, of domesticating the pig. Scientist (or actor?) Martin Lo, in one of the few jocose moments, a chapter called "Utopia of the Ideal Colony", takes a great swipe when he evenly remarks that, "the ideal [colonial] environment might be a shopping mall in space." By addressing Earthkind's penchant for colonization and capitalization, or often setting Dourif, who looks like he just got laid off from a steel mill, amidst copious trash, Herzog may be offering a vague critique of the twentieth century, its violent and destructive tendencies, but there's no cohesive allegory tying The Wild Blue Yonder together; really, it's just a few reels of astronauts sitting in a spaceship and unusual jellyfish swimming underneath sheets of ice. You can get better versions of both of these not only in other, better narrative films but on the Discovery Channel.


Brian Stone said...

I feel like you missed the whole point of the film...

H. Stewart said...

I felt the same way about Herzog. :)