Sunday, June 25, 2006

"The Wild Blue Yonder"



Werner Herzog's newish sci-fi fantasy, The Wild Blue Yonder, takes some pretty thin material and spins it towards an ecstatic state. There are some extraordinary visuals and a soundtrack so moving it will inevitably transport you light years away. Which is the point. Unfortunately, the story requires such an incredible suspension of disbelief that many jaded viewers will be left wondering what to do with themselves for 79 long minutes. Which also seems to be the point. Herzog is testing our limits, our ability to (dis)engage in fantasy, as a species, at this point in time. How little CGI can we endure? How little drooling alien makeup can we abide? To what extent will the simply dazzled eye bypass our hyper-critical brains and speak directly to some more cosmically attuned part of ourselves?

The plot here is an absolute mess. Almost likeably so. You sense Herzog saying, "the plot is unimportant, let there be inconsistencies and confusion." Thus spake Werner. So here's what you get...

An angry alien narrating from present day Earth, explains how his "people" came here from the Andromeda galaxy, a journey that took thousands and thousands of generations to make. By the time they got here they were so inbred, so travel-weary, so lost, that their attempts to colonize Earth with their own benevolent society failed miserably. ("We built malls and no one came!") To make matters worse, these humanoid aliens brought some potentially harmful space bacteria with them, which Earth scientists discover and which triggers a global alarm - Earthlings must go looking for another place in the universe to live. In searching for another place to live, astronauts discover a system of invisible space-time accelerators, or space highways, that enable interstellar travel in a relatively short time. Herzog brings in some wonderfully nerdy scientists to explain this discovery, and the bogus science seems entirely believable. Scary how easy it is to fall for a scientist's schpiel (spiel? Schpeilcheck anyone?)!

One system of space highways leads directly to the abandoned planet of the narrator, a beautiful blue underwater world covered in a layer of ice with a liquid hydrogen atmosphere. We see that what really pisses off this ponytailed alien is that it took them tens of thousands of years to get from their planet to Earth, and yet it only took us humans a short time to get to their planet. Once there, we began looking for ways to colonize their abandoned planet. What exactly happens at this point is still a blur to me, but basically, Earth is abandoned and left to return to a prehuman state of natural bliss. (The final shots of the movie, depicting this utopia are breathtaking.) Ostensibly, humans are sent off to other less habitable places and are allowed to return home every now and again for a vacation on our Eden-like planet.

Got it?

The main thing to be aware of here is that 90% of this convoluted tale is told with pre-existing footage: mostly some NASA space shuttle footage from what appears to be the 80s, and some incredible underwater, beneath the ice, scuba footage from Antarctica. We are asked to believe that the Antarctica footage is the other planet, and we are asked to believe that the Shuttle astronauts are not shuttle astronauts from the 80s, but astronauts in search of other places for humans to live in the universe. This is hard to do, since we have previously seen this footage in one form or another. By the time we get some mundane (but original) talking head shots from the supposed scientists, we are relieved and absolutely ready to believe their every word. It's an interesting experiment. One that surely would have been dead in the water had it not been for the soul-stirring glue of the soundtrack by cellist Ernst Reijseger, Somalian vocalist Mola Sylla, backed up by the Sardinian Voices. (Sadly this appears unavailable anywhere in this galaxy. The samples on the site do not do it justice.)

My fair lady Sarah got seasick during the underwater segments, a few others left the theater, unable to sustain their interest, and disbelief, in the ultra long takes. I was fascinated, but also very aware of the charlatan Herzog at play. I can so easily picture him accepting a bet which challenged him to make a feature using found footage, or perhaps a bet to see if he could complete five films in one year (something he did). So yes, the results here are a little thin, but not without exquisite charms. Could it be that Herzog, now getting on in years, employs tricks and self-propelling experiments do some of his famous "heavy lifting" for him? It is not likely the case. If you read the recent New Yorker account of his latest movie (a dramatization of his earlier documentary "Little Dieter Learns to Fly"), then you know that he's still happily putting himself well in harm's way.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think the real story is that the "alien" is a crazy guy making it all up? Using footage of astronauts and Roswell and early airplanes to feed his fantasy of being an alien? (Because if he's really an alien, how can he see into the future? He has to be crazy.) But even though he's a nutcase, he's also a visionary with some important things to say about the planet.

My guess as to why this movie is made up of pre-existing footage is that Herzog, not being a blow-'em-up Hollywood director, has a lot of trouble getting money to make movies. He's doing his best (and his best is pretty damn good) to work around financial limitations.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Pablo Gazpachot said...

I like what you're saying mr. anonymous. The crazy card is one I hadn't seen, though it's so obvious now that you mention it... good to have options when it comes to reading films.

Herzog is having a great life, isn't he? He really doesn't need all that much money to do what he does so well. That's called beating the system where I come from.

10:54 PM  
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