REVIEW: At the end of the week when a refrigerator-sized space rock could have disrupted the US elections (or at least one candidate was probably hoping), Werner Herzog’s new documentary seems like perfect viewing.
In Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (which had its world premiere at September’s Toronto Film Festival and will debut on AppleTV+ this Friday, November 13), the eccentric Bavarian film-maker brings the same unstinting focus, questioning observation and wryly comedic voiceover to the science and history of meteorites, as he has in the past to Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the Earth), capital punishment (Into the Abyss) and the internet (Lo and Behold).
He begins with a stark warning, perhaps inspired by David Attenborough’s recent Netflix forays. “We don’t know what is coming for us, what will destroy us – but it will look like this fireball, only much larger,” he intones as dash-cam footage taken in Siberia in 2013 plays out on screen.
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Herzog’s latest globetrotting journey includes visits to Hawaii, Norway, Antarctica and, as The Mandalorian star so wonderfully puts it, “a beach resort so godforsaken it makes you want to cry” (Mexico’s Chicxulub).
At Chicxulub some 66 million years ago, a meteorite travelling at 20km/sec before it hit the ground, caused a mega tsunami, gases to soar into the atmosphere and molten droplets to rain down for hundreds of kilometres.
But, as Herzog surveys the desolate landscape today, drinks the science in and tries to make sense of it all, his remarks aren’t exactly Attenborough-esque. “Like all dogs on this planet, the ones here are too dimwitted to realise that three-quarters of all life was wiped out in this place by something from another world.”
Most of the time though, Herzog – or his co-director and more gregarious cipher, University of Cambridge vulcanologist Clive Oppenheimer – have plenty of interesting people to interview, from a Canadian planetary defence researcher, to Norway’s foremost guitarist and hobby geologist, and the director of the Vatican Observatory.
And, of course, you just know that Herzog is going to ask the hard questions. “If little green men come to earth, will you baptise them?”
“Only if they ask,” comes the pithy reply.
Some of the most fascinating discussions of Fireball deal with the spiritual and philosophical implications of potentially deadly visitors from the sky, but Herzog appears acutely aware that his subject matter may occasionally get a bit too niche and technical for many viewers.
“It gets so complicated we’re not going to torture you with the details,” his voiceover interrupts, as a scientist launches into a detailed description of quasi-crystals.
Blood on the Wall debuts on the National Geographic channel on November 15.
Much more sobering and darker in tone is National Geographic documentary Blood on the Wall (which debuted here as part of this year’s online Documentary Edge Film Festival, but is now making its Kiwi broadcasting bow on NatGeo’s Sky TV channel on November 15).
Having previously delved into the war in Afghanistan (Restrepo) and the life and times of British war photographer Tim Hetherington (Which Way is the Front Line From Here?), Sebastian Junger this time turns his attentions to Mexico and the stream of Central American migrants passing through the country in the hope of making it to the United States with the same ease that some of their countries’ illegal exports do.
An excellent primer and deep-dive into the struggles they and locals face, Mexican history and the reasons why the rule of law is just an aspiration there, Blood is compulsive and compulsory viewing for fans of Narcos, Sicario and other similarly set Hollywood-ised stories.