'Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds': Film Review | TIFF 2020

Fireball
Courtesy of TIFF
An elegant fusion of science and awe.

Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer ('Into the Inferno') reteam for a globe-hopping exploration of the fallout and the lure of asteroids, meteorites and cosmic dust.

As if we don't have enough to worry about, Werner Herzog invites us, in his new documentary, to contemplate the inevitability of planetary devastation by asteroid. Fireball is a wide-ranging survey of the scientific evidence as well as the theories and conjecture concerning rocks of all sizes that fall from space, with emphasis too on the mythology, art and rituals that they've inspired among us earthlings. These "visitors from darker worlds," as the film is subtitled, might be carriers of crucial information about the universe or signs from God, but however you view them, Herzog assures us that "untold numbers are still on their way."

And, he adds, with precisely the Bavarian-accented foreboding-inflected cheer (or cheer-inflected foreboding) that we've come to crave, "We do not know what in the future is coming at us, eventually destroying us." True enough. Yet Fireball, which will follow its Toronto bow with an Apple TV+ release in the fall, is no death trip. With its collection of instructive, eager-to-share experts and an all-around wow factor, it's certainly one of Herzog's most kid-friendly films (older kids, but still). And though at first the doc feels lacking in the sort of existential pangs that electrified the director's Antarctica-set Encounters at the End of the World, the contemplative momentum builds. An anthropological adventure as much as a geological one, Fireball shifts with synapse-sparking ease from dire warning to sheer wonder.

Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who appeared in Encounters and played a key role, as expert and guide, in Into the Inferno, joins the maestro at the helm for the new film, also serving as affable onscreen interlocutor. The production's 17 locations include some of the planet's farthest geographic corners, as well as government facilities and university laboratories — all of it captured in crisp compositions by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, Herzog's longtime collaborator, who moves seamlessly from the unobtrusive to the lyrical and breathtaking.

The filmmakers visit the sites of historic asteroid hits on several continents, and Fireball explores, briefly and intriguingly, the cultures and rites that commemorate these cataclysms. A field in Alsace looks unexceptional, but had there been news feeds in 1492, the locally legendary 300-pound stone that landed there likely would have overshadowed the item about Columbus making landfall in the Caribbean.

The interviewees' fields of expertise cover a broad range: geology, astronomy, theoretical physics, cave archaeology, indigenous art. Oppenheimer's conversations focus on particulars, with connections between science and spirituality surfacing in ways that are as unforced as they are profound. Conventional Western polarities dissolve. In Rajasthan, India, sitting with Oppenheimer near a 10th century Hindu temple built in a massive impact crater — an idyllic setting that was once the site of devastation — geochemist Nita Sahai notes that Hinduism's Shiva is a god of both creation and destruction.

Narrator Herzog makes a point of avoiding information overload, noting on a couple of occasions when he's cutting an expert's screen time for the sake of clarity and pacing. But even when it comes to such complex mysteries as quasicrystals, we get the gist. And the scientists' enthusiasm goes a long way. One uses the words "amazing" and "spectacular" with unabashed glee as he pulls meteorites from atmosphere-controlled storage cabinets to display them for the camera. Brother Guy Consolmagno, the genial Jesuit astronomer who's director of the Vatican Observatory, is as exuberant a personification of the intersection of science and religion as you're likely to find.

There's a primal common denominator among the various rituals and artistic motifs that course through this globe-hopping exploration, as specific as they are to each locale. Whether the focus is the revered Black Stone in the Kaaba at Mecca, a Melanesian people's belief that shooting stars transport the souls of the departed, or a ceremonial game of Mayan fireball performed on Mexico's Day of the Dead, an ancient bond between heaven and Earth is at the core.

On the Yucatan Peninsula, the camera glides through streets of tumbledown shacks in Chicxulub, "a beach resort so godforsaken you want to cry," as Herzog somewhat overstates it. Sixty-six million years ago, this coastal area was ground zero for the apocalyptic impact of a humongous celestial body that wiped out the dinosaurs and most other plants and animals on the planet. Signaling how little we still know, the crater left by that event, mostly underwater, wasn't discovered until the 1970s.

But we do know how to watch the skies for incoming asteroids and other would-be disturbers of the peace. Oppenheimer visits with the vigilant and notably mellow souls who do so on Maui, using telescopes equipped with the world's largest digital cameras. Notwithstanding the know-how of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Herzog pays tribute to the draw of disaster for storytellers and audiences alike, with admiring nods to clips from Last Day of the Dinosaurs and Deep Impact ("just the shudder audiences go for").

From pop-culture shivers to the fine-art imagery of micrometeorites — otherworldly particles gathered from everyday surfaces by a jazz musician in Norway and then magnified thousands of times — Fireball delivers the cosmic goods. Its climactic sequences, one on the ice fields of Antarctica and the other on tiny Mer Island, between Australia and Papua New Guinea, are alive with jaw-dropping, soul-stirring beauty. In the first locale, a hunt for meteorites is underway on the polar plateau. In the other, a ritual dance, long in disuse, is revived for the cameras on a remote sunset beach. In very different ways, both episodes place us firmly on a continuum with outer space, and find a kind of ecstasy in knowing that our place in the universe makes us far smaller and less essential than we imagine.   

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Distributor: Apple
Production companies: Spring Films, Werner Herzog Film, Sandbox Films, Hot Docs Partners
Directors: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer
Screenwriter-narrator: Werner Herzog
Producers: André Singer, Lucki Stipetic
Executive producers: Richard Melman, Greg Boustead, Jessica Harrop, Anna Godas, Oli Harbottle
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Editor: Marco Capalbo
Music: Ernst Reijseger
International sales: Dogwoof

98 minutes