Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: The Wild Blue Yonder

Though 2005's The Wild Blue Yonder is a Werner Herzog film, don't go into it expecting any of his trademark narration. Though it largely consists of documentary footage, it can't really be called a documentary. And though it has a narrative—described by the opening titles as "a science fiction fantasy"—it is in no way a traditional one.

The story is self-evidently not meant to be taken at face value, as is the case with most science fiction. Let me explain. The Wild Blue Yonder has one actor—the always-adorable Brad Dourif—portraying an alien from the Andromeda galaxy. While standing in front of bleak terrestrial settings (like a seemingly abandoned town and a mobile home apparently hit by a tornado), Dourif explains—to the camera—how his people came to this planet, how the government launched a secret expedition into the far reaches of space in search of an alternative to Earth, and how this expedition discovered Dourif's homeworld. His exposition is overlaid with appropriately otherworldly footage from a space shuttle mission and from an Antarctic diving expedition, along with occasional snippets of interviews with astronomers.

Ed Wood wishes he could recontextualize footage like Herzog does here. Make no mistake, The Wild Blue Yonder has moments of profundity and awe. The one that struck me the most was a low-angle shot of a diver, dark and looming like an alien colossus, poking at an unidentifiable tentacled seafloor creature. But moments like these are infrequent in this highly experimental film; the entire effect comes off as Herzog being challenged to make a fictional film out of nothing but a single actor and someone else's footage (of his choice), and Herzog tied it all together with a script that seems like he got high with some friends one afternoon and started "whoah-dude"-ing about astronomy.

Which is to say that, as bold an experiment as The Wild Blue Yonder is, I was never fully "on board" throughout. It's not as though I went into this expecting Avatar, but the conceit is so distancing that the languorous stretches of diving/spaceship footage become boring, which is a shame because at first it's very striking stuff to watch. Maybe I'm too much of a rationalist, but I kept thinking about how I wanted to see the nonfiction version of all this—to know more about the Lovecraftian lifeforms in the diving sequences, and to hear interviews with the astronauts about the daily grind in freefall. Of course, I can get that elsewhere—but even the hypnotic eye-glaze induced by other Ernst Reijseger-scored Herzog joints eluded me here, replaced with bafflement and, as mentioned above, periods of boredom.

Maybe the only correct way to approach The Wild Blue Yonder is with significant preparation, followed by total surrender. And my sci-fi background's adequate to the task of going along with a weird-ass story like this. It's just that the presentation was so very offbeat (right down to the sneezing scene) that whatever effect the movie was actually going for didn't take hold for me in any but the most fleeting fashion. I don't regret seeing it, but so far this is at the bottom of the list of Herzog films I'd want to see again.

Star Score: 2.5 out of 5

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