Do you enjoy long, dialogue-free sequences of astronauts floating in a space capsule? Do you like watching people scuba-diving under Antarctica while voiceover narration pretends this is an alien world? Do you enjoy listening to ear-bleedingly awful music? Do you want to watch an incoherent faux-documentary with some beautiful cinematography but not much else?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of those questions, you’ll love The Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog’s follow-up to last year’s critical lovemuffin, Grizzly Man. It’s a movie that feels like somebody shot a half-dozen reels of documentary footage but couldn’t figure out how to piece it together. The end result is tedious at best, but most of the time it’s just awful.
Its solution to the problem of stringing together all this footage is to create a “science fiction fantasy,” a fictitious narrative using actual theoretical ideas (explained in interviews by real mathematicians and physicists) about space travel and the future of humans colonizing other worlds. Much of the fiction is explained to us by “alien” Brad Dourif (from Deadwood, among other things), who left his dying planet in the Andromeda galaxy to settle on Earth. Apparently, he and his alien cohorts had the idea of building a big city focused around a huge mall, but “nobody came.” It’s unclear whether or not these aliens are pretending to be humans or if they’re peacefully coexisting with humans; at first it seems like the former, but Dourif keeps ranting about things he could have told “them” (the CIA, ostensibly), but nobody believed him. Also, he seems a little bitter and angry about nobody visiting their great, mall-based city. Perhaps if they had said they were aliens, people would have been more interested; without a hook like that, it seems hard to believe that people would rush out to a desert town in the middle of nowhere to go to the Gap.
But then, that’s par for the course in The Wild Blue Yonder. The overwhelming problem here is that the narrative Herzog constructed to loosely tie together the randomness of the documentary footage…doesn’t make much sense. The alien loses focus on his own people’s journey and starts to ramble about Roswell, and how 50 years after that crash, the U.S. government decided to use modern technology to figure out where it came from. The ship released some sort of alien microbe that scientists think may destroy the human race. They launch a rocket immediately; the intention is to head into deep space and find a potential planet to colonize.
This seems like a reasonable solution if the faster-than-light propulsion popular in space-based sci-fi existed here, but this is supposed to take place in a world resembling our own. As the alien explains, with current technology it’d take roughly 6,000 years to reach the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, but that’s already been ruled uninhabitable because it burns too hot to support human life. The nearest star with potential is about 200,000 years away.
I know a seemingly endless series of budget cuts has nearly crippled NASA over the past few decades, but one would think they at least realized the futility of this mission before they sent the rocket up. But it’s only when resources on the ship start to dwindle that anybody on the ground realizes maybe their strategy of sending five people on a 200,000-year journey was a little short-sighted. They need to speed the trip up a little bit.
They come up with a solution, and here’s where all the goofy theoretical physics come in. Real-life NASA scientist Martin Lo explains a theory about chaotic orbits (as opposed to the standard, perfect orbits formerly believed to guide celestial bodies) and how “tunnels” created by the chaos will somehow speed up space travel exponentially, which he calls the “Inter-Planetary Superhighway.” Which is great; it sends them clear to Brad Dourif’s home planet in Andromeda, a trip that should take hundreds of thousands of years (if not millions). It’s never made clear why the crew happens to coincidentally set their sights on this particular planet. Was this the planet located by NASA as the origin of the Roswell ship? Why would they send their people to colonize a planet that released the potentially deadly microbe?
The crew spends time scouting locations on the alien planet. The odd, otherworldly ocean under Antarctica plays the role of the alien planet. The footage is pretty amazing, but it made me wonder why Herzog chooses to pretend this alien-looking world really is an alien world—isn’t it slightly more impressive that such a strange place exists on Earth?
Either way, while the theoretical science behind it is interesting, the “story” Herzog crafts with it just doesn’t work. At all. It reaches its shrill apex of nonsense when an interview with a scientist reveals that a modern colony—as opposed to the type of colony popularized in 1950s sci-fi, which often resembled a huge jungle in a greenhouse—would essentially be a huge mall. Dourif gets really incensed by that, noting again that his alien race had tried to make a mall-based colony. Except the analogy doesn’t work, because they built a mall on a planet that already has tons of them, and the mall was for humans, not their alien race. As opposed to the colonies the scientist was referring to, made by and for humans in places where Earth-friendly shopping malls did not previously exist.
So I’ve established that the story makes no sense, but some might argue this isn’t a movie that’s about story; it’s about imagery and symbolism and poetry, and the themes of consumerism and humans turning everything they touch into a blight zone trump a lousy narrative. It’s just hard to take any of the subtext seriously when the story, which the film takes very seriously, is garbage.
It’s also hard to accept it when the film gives us so much time to sit back and ponder what we’ve already seen. Endless, glacially paced sequences show astronauts bobbing up and down in slow-motion. We get to see them swimming around the “helium atmosphere” of the “alien world.” All of this is set to strident, plodding, cello-and-foreign-choir music that might confuse people into thinking it’s very artistic and deep. I was too busy thinking that whatever points Herzog tries to make are lost in the mess of fiction he’s attached to these images and themes. Its 81-minute runtime feels more like watching the astronauts’ supposed 15-year journey in real-time, and it’s a big bucket of garbage masquerading as art. Avoid.