Film fans around the world know Werner Herzog as the director of some of cinema's most daring motion pictures. He has a reputation of throwing himself completely into his projects, turning his films into personal journeys. They are more like attempts by the director to immerse himself in cultures and circumstances where he will learn more about himself as an artist, and therefore more about the subject matter of his movie than mere exercises in storytelling. Most of the time, he succeeds. He also hopes that the audience gets a similar, symbiotic experience. But he is not perfect in his perception. At times -- like 2001's Invincible -- he gets lost along the way and turns something special into a derivative and dull pastiche of problems. Yet even when he's not completely responsible for the story or the telling -– like his amazing documentary from 2005, Grizzly Man –- Herzog has an innate ability with material. Such a skillful strongpoint is put to the test with his impassioned plea for the sake of the planet, a bizarre and baffling speculative fiction entitled The Wild Blue Yonder. While the story told is simplistic, how it was created forms the basis for many of the movie's pluses...and a few of its minuses as well.
Hoping to escape their dying planet on the outskirts of Andromeda, a group of aliens land on Earth. After decades trying to fit in and acclimate, the last remaining member of the crew decides to tell his story. Standing near the remnants of his people's failed Capital City structure, our extraterrestrial narrator tells a strange, surreal saga of dying societies, American space races, Area 51 and a possible interstellar plague. Said threat leads NASA to send a mission to another world to look for habitable spots for possible human relocation. Naturally, the astronauts end up on the very same sphere the aliens escaped from centuries before. Through the use of chaotic tunnels, the journey leads to the liquid helium landscape and the otherworldly wonders within. When they return to our solar system, the space travelers discover an empty and unpopulated globe. Man has managed to destroy himself, and all that's left is the land, the sea, and what lies beyond The Wild Blue Yonder.
Leave it to German auteur Werner Herzog to create a science fiction fantasy out of actual empirical fact. Combining found footage with a personally propagated narrative, the fascinating filmmaker behind such monumental cinematic achievements as Aquirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, is trying something completely new and experimental with this specious speculative mock up. As much about the poetry and beauty of nature as the mystery and wonder of the unexplored realms of the universe, Herzog's message is one of inner as well as external examination. Taking NASA training films as well as visual documentation from its many missions and combining it with underwater images from beneath the Antarctic ice flows, and an arcane sci-fi monologue from actor Brad Dourif (as a failed, fatalistic alien), this director hopes to combine the fantastical with the pragmatic to envision a spectacle with nothing but known quantities before the camera. No CGI effects or miniaturized backdrops, no Hollywood wizardry or art designer's designation of the shape of things to come. This is the amazing out of the ordinary, the awe-inspiring out of the actual. For Herzog, the ocean floor is an extraterrestrial plane loaded with undiscovered delights, while the image of man conquering nature to send astronauts into orbit is as astounding an achievement as the vastness of the universe itself.
For some, this movie will mean very little. It will be seen as gimmicky and goofy, without a solid center to support its occasionally superfluous flights of fancy. To his credit, Herzog really isn't trying to tell a standard science fiction story the way Star Wars or Star Trek does. No, in his mind, The Wild Blue Yonder is like an inverted 2001, a structureless look at humanity's place in the cosmos and the significance/insignificance of same. With Dourif as a kind of glorified Greek Chorus commenting on and setting the stage for many of the director's more daring ideas, we get a level headed take on futurism, a unique tone poem like appreciation of the vastness of the infinite space around us. Sure, there is some surreal, satiric humor added in (in order to downplay his interstellar importance, Dourif makes it clear that, in general, all aliens suck) and not every segment in the chapter-divided storyline works well (there are too many shots of gravity-defying astronauts floating around). Still, the audacity of such an approach to what is typically an overdone genre is refreshing, and Herzog certainly understands the language of film. When combined with the amazing music composed by Ernst Reijsiger, we find ourselves moved by images we've seen hundreds of times before on various Discovery Channel/National Geographic like TV specials.
And yet it's true that The Wild Blue Yonder is also unlike any film you've ever seen. The haphazard nature of the material –- while Herzog uncovered it, he did not film it or frame it –- and the conceit at the center of the story may seem cloying to the unprepared. Indeed, there are moments when Dourif comes across less like an intelligent life form and more like a pissed off homeless person having a less than lucid moment. We also wonder what Herzog has in store from a purely cognizant standpoint. After all, how does one suspend disbelief when we are seeing material we know really has none of the otherworldly attributes that Herzog is placing on them? Dourif is dynamite, even when he's obvious and over the top, and the cinematic nature of the material can be mind blowing at times. In many ways however, it's all a game –- of perception, or involvement, and of immersion. Depending on how far you are willing to go with Herzog's scheme, that is the mirrored amount of enjoyment you will get from the film. Simultaneously thrilling and slight, wondrous and weak, The Wild Blue Yonder proves that, in an age of mainstreaming and moderation, one filmmaker is still fond of pushing the limits of the artform. Frankly, cinema is much stronger for having the likes of Werner Herzog attacking the boundaries and rewriting the primers.
Presented by Subversive Cinema in an excellent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the visual elements of The Wild Blue Yonder are exceptional. For stock footage, individual library material and non-professionally shot sequences, the overall look is impressive, purely artistic in its nature. From the ghostly blue waters under the Antarctic to the amazing shots of Earth from space, this is an incredible looking movie. Such a sound print provides the storyline with the commanding vistas it needs to successfully sell its speculative nature.
Even more impressive than the video, Subversive's Dolby Digital Stereo mix is just spectacular. The aural elements here are indeed fantastic. The music created by Ernst Reijsiger, based in strings and obscure aboriginal voices, makes even the most mundane sequence soar with importance. Frankly, it is impossible to think of this film without the amazing soundtrack. Equally central is Dourif's dialogue. Thanks to the technical expertise employed, his lines are easily decipherable and made all the more powerful by the supporting sonic situation.
Subversive also shines in the added content department, giving The Wild Blue Yonder a full length audio commentary (featuring Herzog, Dourif and company honcho Norm Hill), half hour interviews with both the director and actor (individually), a behind the scenes look at how the score was accomplished, and some additional information on the production itself. It's a wonderfully fleshed out package, as much for the data supplied as for the people supplying it. It has to be said that Herzog is one of the more mesmerizing speakers when it comes to his work. In his very controlled English, he illuminates themes while he supports and/or deconstructs his motives and meaning. This makes his Q&A quite exceptional (he gives lots of details about his designs for the film) and his participation in any alternative narrative automatically becomes mandatory DVD fodder. Dourif, on the other hand, is super serious both in his sit down and as part of the commentary track. He wants to sound erudite and informed, and on occasion, he can be a bit dry. Still, his presence is appreciated, and his take on certain aspects of the movie imperative to understanding its purpose. Showing he is a director even in the realm of musical composition, the soundtrack featurette is truly spellbinding. Bringing together artists who had never worked together before and getting them to more or less improvise an amazing ambient score is quite fascinating. It makes the contextual nature of the digital release as important as the film it supplements.
It's rare when an artist can take the easily identifiable and the plainly pragmatic and turn it into something aesthetically unrecognizable. Even more uncommon is the director who can successfully walk the creative chasms between fact and fiction, documentary and docudrama and never once make a major misstep. Werner Herzog manages to do all this and more with The Wild Blue Yonder. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating for both its daring and depiction of the fragility of our planet (and our purpose on it), this will still be a hard sell for anyone waiting for light saber battles, giant alien monsters and spaceships hovering over digital cityscapes. Herzog's view of the future is not one carved out of the remnants of Buck Rodgers or the vision of some technological geek. No, for this genre-defying filmmaker, the world around us is as 'alien' as any far off distant star. Perhaps if we could view it in this light, we would react to it better – and give it the respect he obviously feels it deserves. If Herzog manages to get that message across, this otherwise unusual experiment in film will be well worth the trouble.
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