Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Wild Blue Yonder begins on the wrong foot, with an opening title card letting us know that the film is 'extraordinary.' A subsequent card then assures us that it is a science fiction fantasy. Viewers are relieved of the burden of judging the film's quality, and also of figuring out what kind of movie it is.
Speculative and imaginative Sci-Fi is always welcome, and Werner Herzog's show gets passing marks for concept and for an astonishing music score that makes its 81 minutes watchable. The rest of The Wild Blue Yonder comes off as a real cheat, a meandering lecture illustrated with found footage. Most of what we see wasn't necessarily shot for this film and bears only a tangential or accidental relationship to the story being told.
In the California desert, a space alien from the Andromeda nebula (Brad Dourif) tells us that his party of colonists came to Earth to build glorious cities but failed miserably. He relates a futuristic narrative about an Earthly attempt to spread into the universe. After studies of the Roswell flying saucer (actually an Andromedan space probe) prove that it carries a virulent alien germ, a manned NASA space voyage is launched to find another habitable place in the Solar System. A plague never develops, but the astronauts perfect a way of using mathematics to instantaneously transport spaceships across the galaxy. This allows them to visit the Andromedan's home planet and partake of exploratory swims in its oceans of frozen gases. The spacemen return to Earth, only to find that the Chaotic Transport' mechanism plays tricks with time: It's 820 years in the future, humans are extinct and the planet is once again a verdant primitive paradise.
Presenting grandiose ideas in a minimalist form has worked many times in the past, as proved by the animated stills that comprise Chris Marker's La jetée and the anti-Futuristic Paris of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. Werner Herzog's frustrating The Wild Blue Yonder is a well-intentioned series of lectures about the environment, man's place in the universe and the impracticality of deep space travel. The problem is that the majority of the film is little more than a recorded narration script illustrated with the cinematic equivalent of unrelated light-show images. It's as if he started with two hunks of attractive stock footage and said, "Let's invent a movie -- any movie -- to put this material together with the least possible effort."
The first thing we see is actor Brad Dourif, who simply lectures to the camera in the forest of power windmills near Palm Springs, before moving to an abandoned crossroads in the low desert, perhaps the remains of the town where Roger Corman's The Wild Angels was filmed. Dourif's Andromedan expresses his rage at coming all the way across the Galaxy only to completely fail at building an Earth colony. "We SUCK!" He keeps repeating. He's also upset that he had to endure a trip of thousands of years' duration, only to find out that a few plucky Yankees figured out how to cross near-infinite space in the same time it takes to go to the Moon. Like a stoned dorm student, The Wild Blue Yonder quotes random concepts from The Man Who Fell to Earth and Dune without bothering to dramatize them.
Herzog's endless talk has some good ideas, especially Dourif's furious opinion (trust him, man, he's from Andromeda) that, given the great distances, there's little purpose in trying to reach places where human life might be possible or where we might find extraterrestrials. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to stretch our wings with orbital missions and take advantage of the possibilities of research and observation in space. We know that Mr. Herzog isn't against unmanned probes -- he personally enjoys going to Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Lab to witness the great events that transpire there.
The balance of The Wild Blue Yonder plays more like the gobbledygook montages in movies like King Dinosaur or the Erich von Däniken farce Chariots of the Gods (Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, Harald Reinl, 1970): While the narrators drone on with the film's fantasy plotline, we're shown documentary images that are essentially unrelated. The images in themselves are beautiful. We see at least thirty minutes' of footage shot on a shuttle or space station mission, observing astronauts going about their work and daily routine. This almost generic material is used as visual filler behind Dourif's story-time tale of a space voyage through a Chaotic Transport short cut (read: Wormhole or Time-Space Continuum Portal) across the galaxy.
The documentary material supposedly predates Herzog's conception of The Wild Blue Yonder. Henry Kaiser filmed some remarkable footage under the McMurdo Ice Shelf off Antarctica. Scientists drilled a passage through many feet of ice and then entered in Scuba gear to investigate the strange denizens living below -- odd shellfish and jellyfish creatures. This eerie footage is used to represent the Astronauts' investigation of the frozen surface of Andromeda. While Brad Dourif talks about his homesickness for this place, we're treated to reels of beautiful images that belong on a National Geographic special.
Herzog's conceit might work if there were more of a connection between the visuals and the spoken script. Stanley Kubrick, after all, did much the same thing when he used aerial shots of Monument Valley and other landscapes for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Andrei Tarkovsky simply filmed some swirling liquids to create the sentient planet Solaris. Herzog's does tries to make specific links between his docu footage and his narrative. At one point he shows one astronaut rubbing another's temples, as if to soothe a headache. Dourif then represents the action as mystic activity, telling us that the space men became more spiritually oriented on their long journey. One handsome sequence under the ice shows ordinary scuba divers 'dissolving' in the bright light of an ice tunnel, and Dourif explains that the spacemen's physical bodies are being broken up into particles of energy in preparation to take the quickie Chaotic Transport trip back home. This associative laziness only stresses the fact that we're watching improvised doodles and not a real movie.
The film's most palatable component is an inspirational score by Ernst Reijsiger that uses interesting voices and a prominent cello; it reminds us of the wonderful cello music for Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World. Frankly, a music-only track would make this disc a recommended buy.
The film ends on a familiar Sci-Fi revelation. The returning astronauts discover that in the years they've been gone, humanity has died out and the world is back to its pristine prehistoric state. All we are shown are some airplane views of misty forests similar to scenes from Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Dourif's last words complimenting the restored primitive Earth contradict Herzog's fevered monologues in his earlier documentary Burden of Dreams. Herzog condemned the wild forest as a Hell on Earth where animals live in terror and disgust at the horrors of rot and killing. Those sentiments don't jibe with this new reverence for the 'pristine' natural world.
Subversive Cinema's DVD of The Wild Blue Yonder is a handsome enhanced transfer of this color film. Both the space material and the Antarctic footage are sharp and attractive and the audio flatters Ernst Reijsiger's impressive music.
Disc producer Norman Hill introduces Werner Herzog and Brad Dourif for a full length commentary, and both raconteurs are given separate taped interviews. A pair of making-of featurettes includes an interesting look at recording sessions for the haunting music score. The trailers are for other Subversive DVD offerings.
The Wild Blue Yonder certainly has its admirers. The box proudly displays glowing review quotes from Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and the film also won an award at the Venice Film festival. Perhaps The Wild Blue Yonder is best approached as a one-man performance piece backed by spacey, suggestive visuals and music, that doesn't intend to be an integrated cinematic experience.
The film's website can be found at
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wild Blue Yonder rates:
Movie: Fair +
Supplements: Commentary and interview featurettes with director Herzog and star Dourif; featurette on the music recording session, still gallery and text biographies
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 20, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson