The success of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man—which last year made a unique migration from the art house to the Discovery Channel—should cement the maverick German auteur as the greatest living director of nature films. Yet as viewers of Grizzly Man, his Gulf War meditation Lessons of Darkness, or even his feature Aguirre, the Wrath of God (currently running at Film Forum) well know, Herzog’s worldview rejects the cuddly circle-of-life balance epitomized by Wild Kingdom or Jacques Cousteau. With Nietzschean ruthlessness, Herzog’s nature is a crushing force that tests and wears down both society and individuals alike—a massive power too often underestimated by human hubris.
The Wild Blue Yonder continues this theme, replacing the burning oil fields of the Gulf and the deadly jungles of the Amazon with the impossibly vast coldness of outer space. Brad Dourif narrates as an earthbound extraterrestrial, part of a botched attempt to build a Terran colony. “We aliens all suck,” he says, looking more like a dusty western drifter than E.T. “I guess we’re just failures.” Dourif’s recollections of his own race’s journey to Earth parallel another story he tells, that of a human expedition to find his home world, spurred by an alien microbe discovered in the secret space junk in Roswell, New Mexico. Herzog illustrates the narrative with repurposed science documentary footage: The human astronauts appear in NASA videos taken during Space Shuttle expeditions, or footage from seemingly otherworldly trips beneath the Antarctic ice. Interspersed talking-head interviews with astrophysicists at American universities appear to discuss actual theories, but talk of far-out stuff like “gravitational tunnels” and “chaotic transport” gets re-woven by Herzog back into his fictional skein. Though occasionally striking, the footage doesn’t pack the evocative punch Herzog intends, and segments that should be lyrical mind trips only result in overstretched longueurs.