The Wild Blue Yonder

If you’re a fan of Koyaanisqatsi and The Man Who Fell to Earth, you might just find yourself among the small but appreciative cult for Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder. The movie uses NASA footage, underwater footage, and Brad Dourif footage, and it’s a toss-up which footage is most otherworldly.

Dourif is pretty much an alien anyway — any day now I expect him and Crispin Glover to hold a press conference sternly announcing their plans for planet Earth, communicating perhaps with their feet — and here he plays one, a lonely son of Andromeda who landed here decades ago with his compatriots. Andromeda was dying, so they came here hoping to build the ideal colony: a shopping mall. Years later, after the Roswell discovery, humans use “chaotic portals” to journey to Andromeda, whose atmosphere is made up of liquid helium. Anguished and coiled with frustration, Dourif talks to the camera, pacing against a barren midwestern backdrop dotted with the occasional truck or discarded couch.

I don’t know quite what Werner Herzog has been smoking all these decades, but more directors need to be smoking it. Herzog seems incapable of making anything that isn’t a Werner Herzog film in big bold letters; there are no Hollywood larks in his portfolio, no quickie thrillers or remakes. All his films tend to be both events and poems, with man’s arrogant, uneasy relationship to nature as their connective tissue. The Wild Blue Yonder gives us minutes on end of rather banal footage of astronauts in white tube socks floating around a space shuttle, wedded to Ernst Reijseger’s mournful cello and Mola Sylla’s ecstatic vocals. After a few minutes you begin to meditate on exactly how miraculous it is that we can be watching astronauts in white tube socks floating around a space shuttle. In its stubborn sidewise way, the movie restores genuine awe to the science-fiction genre.

Herzog uses much of the footage somewhat prankishly, showing us early attempts at flight and telling us it’s secret footage of early Andromedan landings on Earth. We enter into a shared agreement to accept the movie’s strange representational reality — The Wild Blue Yonder occupies some obscure territory between mockumentary and speculative essay. Footage of Henry Kaiser’s diving expedition in Antarctica stands in for our astronauts’ exploration of Andromeda, with its bizarre wriggling creatures “not shown the proper respect” by the dismissive adventurers, Dourif sneers. For all we know, we’re watching footage of some guy picking through squid remains as Dourif says this. In the movie’s reality, we feel sad and offended on behalf of the squid-remains-looking Andromedan life being batted aside so that the astronauts can scout for good shopping-mall locations.

The Wild Blue Yonder is a mesmerizing curiosity. It combines transcendent outer-space footage with talking-heads scenes of two physicists drawing up velocity formulas that I found incomprehensible but somehow beautiful. Herzog’s “science-fiction fantasy” speaks of the death of worlds but, like the best sci-fi, manages to look outward and inward at the same time. One possible reading of the film might cast Dourif the bitter alien as simply a delusional human who’s constructed an elaborate alternate history. I prefer to think he’s really an alien, though — Brad Dourif, that is, not his character; I’d like to think that this is a documentary and Herzog got Dourif to out himself as an Andromedan who dabbled in film acting for a while.

Take the Nestea plunge into this one with open senses. Like 2001 and The Fountain, it will give back to you depending on how much you bring to it; it will tweak your perceptions for a while, and if you’re in the mood for a slightly poky meditation on far-flung adventure — Werner Herzog’s Star Wars, if you will — buy the ticket and take the ride.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, one of the year's best, science fiction

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