To hold a meteorite is to place an object older than the history of humanity in your hand. It’s also to touch a truly foreign object. Where it came from and how long it took to get here, we cannot say. And that’s half the fun.
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds is Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog’s 32nd feature-length documentary (he has plenty more shorts, in addition to his narrative films under his belt), and his second with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer as co-director. The two met while Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World in 2007 and developed a bond. Herzog first called on Oppenheimer for 2016’s Into the Inferno. Now the two reteam for an exploration of meteorites and the people who love them.
Herzog provides the voice and soul of the documentary, with Oppenheimer functioning as a guide—he’s a tad soft-spoken but clearly enthusiastic about his pursuits. He talks to experts to get local stories and flavors, and Herzog uses drone footage to capture the impacts in geographical context. My god, that footage: May you find someone who looks at you the way Herzog looks at his drone shots. I jest, but the images are stunning and in a lock-downed world where I’ve traced the same neighborhood running/walking path more times than I care to count, to see wide-open landscapes and broad vistas from far-off lands is a welcome respite.
As is the giddy gusto the interviewees bring. As Norwegian guitarist and amateur meteoriticist Jon Larsen says, “This is how science works: It’s not about feeling, but about curiosity.”
Few filmmakers are as curious as Herzog. He can find the majestic in the banal, and his ability to cross paths with unusual people and things is downright magical. In one moment, he happens across a statue of a miner in Alsace, France, that uses a digital projector—similar to the ones you see on a ride at Disneyland—to talk to alien visitors about his life. In another, Oppenheimer and Herzog explore a research base on Antarctica, and Oppenheimer finds a meteorite. Then there’s the shaman who lives in a massive crater created by a meteorite strike eons ago.
It’s all so perfectly Herzogian, even if it does feel like familiar territory. At 78 years old, Herzog repeats himself some, but he can still tell a captivating story. And, as the movie’s subtitle suggests, he’s still finding the poetic in his pursuits.