Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chaos! Chaos and Murder!

Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder is a decidedly silly piece of work from a guy who’s made a lot of them. I couldn’t bring myself to hate it, though, even it is that rare thing, a movie that’s drastically overlong at seventy-five minutes. Herzog. Space travel. Math! How can that not be fun?

And it is fun, if exasperating, for just enough of the running time. In the opening titles, it calls itself a “science fiction fantasy,” which really just sounds like a shelving area of a chain bookstore, but I guess he had to call it something. It’s not a documentary, although most of it is made up of what you’d call documentary footage. It’s got a plot of sorts, though that’s generously stretching the term—Brad Dourif (you know, the weird looking kid from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? No? Grima Wormtongue? There you go.) who apparently is supposed to be an alien immigrant to Earth (don’t ask) narrates a funny little fable about a space voyage to another galaxy in search of a replacement Earth. (We’ve ruined ours, you see.) But the twist is that there aren’t any other actors—the astronauts are played by…astronauts. Somehow Herzog got a lot of hilariously banal footage from an actual space shuttle mission—the astronauts eat! sleep! exercise! take notes! self-consciously adjust their clothing for the camera!—and edited it along with Dourif’s voiceover to give the vague impression that NASA’s finest are in fact the “characters” on their quixotic journey. And to explain how such a mission is even “possible,” Herzog finds a gloriously oblivious group of real mathematicians who explain very earnestly about something called “chaotic transport”—which seems in real life to be some complicated theory of orbital mechanics, but is described in the narration as some sort of super-science teleportation strategy. The funniest joke in the film comes when Dourif, explaining the scientific breakthrough, intones “it was a rogue mathematician who discovered the secret,”—and we cut to the blank and gentle face of one Martin Lo, who seems decidedly un-rogue-like, and who clearly doesn’t know the camera is on.

The shuttle’s destination turns out to be Antarctica, I think—it’s supposed to be Dourif’s “home planet” in the Andromeda galaxy, but it’s entirely made up of icy underwater footage. A lot of which is quite startling and beautiful, but which goes on. Forever. Overlaid by Herzogian tribal chanting. Again, it’s sort of funny and sort of puzzling. Then the astronauts go home, and everyone else is dead. Except Brad Dourif. Or something.

So, this isn’t Grizzly Man, or Fitzcarraldo, is what I’m saying. But it would be worth a look some afternoon with the fast-forward button, especially if, like me, you watched a lot of space-shuttle footage as a child.

Speaking of Werner Herzog, this footage is way funnier than The Wild Blue Yonder. Herzog gets shot! On camera! In the middle of an interview! Which sounds horrifying, but is awesome because he’s essentially unharmed on account of being some sort of magical German superhero. And it was probably, you know, a BB gun. But still. His weirdly calm reaction—“what was that?”—as the cameramen dive for cover, is lovely. Even better is his confident assertion after the fact that it was not a significant bullet. I’m gonna have a band called Significant Bullet.

…and he saved Joaquin’s life. Just saying.

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