‘Salt and Fire’: Shanghai Review

Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
Too much salt, too little pepper in a silly eco-fantasy.

Veronica Ferres and Gael Garcia Bernal are scientists abducted by visionary businessman Michael Shannon in Werner Herzog’s exotic eco-thriller.

Described by Werner Herzog as “a daydream that doesn’t follow the rules of cinema,” Salt and Fire may be rule-breaking, but the result is one of the director’s least appealing adventures. Ranging from whimsical to facetious to corny without ever properly engaging its theme of looming ecological disaster, the improbable story about a U.N. scientific delegation abducted by the visionary executive of a multinational company never convinces for a minute. One wishes the filmmaker had applied his sharp, insightful documentary skills (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss) to the pic’s extraordinary landscape, instead of belaboring this stillborn adaptation of a novel by Tom Bissel. 

From Aguirre, Wrath of God on, the clash between nature and human society has been one of the most resonant themes in Herzog’s films, so the man-made environmental holocaust envisioned here could be construed as its natural continuation. The cracked white Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia (which are actually and more banally a tourist attraction and the breeding ground for pink flamingos) have been isolated by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger to magnify their natural majesty and terror.

But the draw for many viewers will be the piquant casting. If last year’s Nicole Kidman-starrer Queen of the Desert was the first film Herzog directed over the course of his long career that featured a woman in the leading role, Salt and Fire is the second, with rising German actress Veronica Ferres playing a bold research scientist turned ecological whistle-blower. Though aggressively Teutonic throughout, she is at least unwavering in her strong convictions. So is her antagonist and (as an afterthought) love interest Matt Riley, the fascinating, aphorism-spewing CEO of an international cartel (“There is no reality, there are only perceptions of reality”). Michael Shannon gamely throws himself into the role with the straight face he used to impersonate Elvis Presley, though here, alas, no irony is intended. Playing a tagalong research scientist, Gael Garcia Bernal is cast in a small but cringeworthy role as a hysterical Latino type.   

The dialogue is full of shameless exposition in which characters fill each other in on background information, such as the early scene on a plane when drunken Prof. Fabio Cavani (Garcia Bernal) informs a flight attendant how he, Prof. Laura Somerfeld (Ferres) and Prof. Maier (Volker Zack Michalowsky) are on their way to an unnamed country on a special mission for the U.N. (Why such coyness? It’s Bolivia.) A world-class eco-disaster is afoot: A lake has been artificially dried up and the salt flats that have appeared in its place (“El Diablo Blanco”) are expanding so rapidly they may engulf not just the unnamed continent, but the whole world.

Anyone incredulous yet?

There’s more: Nearby, the mother of all volcanoes, Uturunku, may be on the verge of exploding, and when that happens, it’s goodbye planet Earth. Thus, both salt and fire menace Gaia.

But since this is a daydream, not a disaster movie, the film revolves more modestly around the kidnapping of the study group. Instead of being met at the airport by a government delegation, they find themselves face-to-face with a black-masked SWAT team with rifles. Menacing but not really, the rough guys work for the power duo of wise-cracking, wheelchair-ridden Krauss (Lawrence Krauss) and the man responsible for the salt lake disaster, Matt Riley. In his hacienda hideaway, Matt admits to Laura that yes, he’s diverted a few large rivers in the course of business. What he won’t tell her is why he’s kidnapped them.

In the second act, the otherworldly landscape of the immense Uyuni salt flats takes center stage when Laura finds herself stranded on a cactus island rising in their midst, in the company of two small blind boys. Thrust into this hostile environment with only enough water to last a week, Laura is worried but the little brothers, who apparently have been blinded by fumes emanating from the flats, are surprisingly chipper. They also bear Inca names, which only reinforces the idea that they are symbols and not real characters. There is a touch of the army sergeant in Laura’s maternal affection for the kids, who she immediately organizes into a survival unit. 

Tipping the scales toward the comic side are her colleagues Garcia Bernal and Michalowsky, who abruptly vanish mid-film after being knocked out by their captors with an induced bout of diarrhea. They miss the final revelation scene, which is probably just as well.

Production companies: Construction Filmproduktion, Skellig Rock in association with Benaroya Productions
Cast: Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, Gael Garcia Bernal, Volker Zack Michalowski, Lawrence Krauss
Director: Werner Herzog
Screenwriter: Werner Herzog, based on a novel by Tom Bissel
Producers: Nina Maag, Werner Herzog, Michael Benaroya, Pablo Cruz
Co-producer: Olivier Pere
Executive producers: Wayne Mark Godfrey, Robert Jones, Gregory McLachlan, Arturo Sampson
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Production designer: Ulrich Bergfelder
Costume designer: Esther Walz
Editor: Joe Bini
Music: Ernst Reijseger
World sales: International Film Trust

Not rated, 98 minutes

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