At first blush, combining the phrases “Werner Herzog” and “science fiction fantasy” together in a pitch conjures all manner of exciting eventualities. Perhaps some kind of moss-textured Martian general (crafted entirely by CGI) voiced by Herzog’s uniquely unsettling timbre, barking oblique orders at an armada of enemy-flesh besuited marauders. Maybe Nic Cage gets involved as an ersatz Han Solo type, trading bewildered barbs with space baddies and saving the universe. You could get Nick Cave to do the score. Anything is possible.

Sadly, 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder was made nearly a decade before Herzog would appear in Jack Reacher to terrorize Clint-Eastwood-impression-era Tom Cruise, so it’s not the kind of advanced art pop schlockbuster one might fantasize. The film is somehow stranger than all of that. Brad Dourif plays a nameless alien from the planet Andromeda. If you’re the kind of person who loves peculiar character actors getting big leading roles, this premise is enticing. You might even think to yourself, “I’d watch an entire movie of just Brad Dourif being an alien.” If so, you’re in luck. That’s it. That’s the entire movie. Dourif tells the story of how his pathetic race took centuries traveling to Earth, only to arrive and fail at setting up a new colony. It’s one big monologue intercut with repurposed archival NASA footage and Henry Kaiser’s work from an expedition to Antarctica.

To call the film experimental would be an understatement. Even at 80 minutes, it isn’t the easiest movie to sit through. Dourif is endlessly watchable, but without other characters for him to interact with or any real arcs for the viewer to glom onto, you’re often felt feeling a little lost, if not full-on glazed over. The mercifully short runtime is a sharp decision, as any longer and this curiously-paced art piece would quickly level up from precious and offbeat to outright frustrating.

What it lacks in conventional narrative structure, it more than makes up for in its fascinating blend of sound and visuals. Marrying Dourif’s off-kilter cadence to a patchwork quilt of photography creates these unsettling juxtapositions that drive the film forward better than any traditional story would have anyway. The general tenor of the images is more meditative than menacing, but the spoken word monologue Dourif provides presents a curious kind of tension. There’s a push and pull between the tale he speaks into action and the related images being given new life in conjunction with his thoughts, not unlike a three-dimensional radio drama. It’s a cerebral, avant-garde strand of science fiction, the kind most modern sci-fi flicks flirt with but won’t actually consummate.

Not enough can be said about Herzog’s highly evocative use of voiceover here. It may feel like an inversion of the “show, don’t tell” maxim, but it calls to mind alternative comic book storytelling, where the quiet chasm between the words you hear and the images they accompany gets filled in by your imagination. Rather than bombarding you with oppressive visuals designed by conceptual artists and brought to life with animation, Wild Blue Yonder leaves you to do your own wondering. It stokes the fires of your imagination instead of doing the leg work in your stead. Ernst Reijseger’s music has a similar aesthetic quality to Dourif’s voice that helps this process along, thundering with a frame-shattering intensity but still characterized by subtler moments of invention.

There’s an incredible sequence delineating the haunting otherness of alien life where Dourif, standing in front of a ravaged home, uses the passage of U.S. history to describe the journey he and his people took from their home planet to Earth. The enormity of that length of time is measured not in light years, but in the passing of epochal pop culture touchstones, from Elvis to the modern era of rock ‘n’ roll. It resonates so much deeper than anything in Interstellar, where the accelerated loss of time is measured by Anne Hathaway’s tears. Similarly, Herzog cuts away to talking-head sequences of scientists explaining the concepts that support the mechanics of Dourif’s fictitious journey. These scenes, halting the natural sense of wonderment that buoys the film, seem like a giant “fuck you” to the kind of rambling, excruciating infodumps Christopher Nolan’s genre work is rife with.

The film’s conclusion posits a strange alternate history by framing a human excursion back to Andromeda as an ironic mirror. It presents intergalactic wanderlust as infectious disease, with our race making the sad, misguided return trip to a place that Dourif’s people so anxiously fled. There’s something to be said here for the tragic side effects of societal expansion and the unknowable truth of one’s place in the universe, yes, but you get the sense Herzog is just kinda fucking around here. There’s some great humor to be had from Dourif’s character (especially any time he references shopping malls) and the entire project seems more like a flight of fancy than anything too pretentious or ponderous. In the end, a postscript says, “We thank NASA for its sense of poetry,” but we, too, should thank Werner Herzog for his supremely peculiar take on a genre that’s often more concerned with blowing up imaginary planets than with gazing at the stars.

  • Nomad

    It’s hard not to get the impression that Herzog’s made another encomium to dreamers and ma…
  • Meeting Gorbachev

    Meeting Gorbachev is a worthwhile documentary that can hopefully penetrate the now-once-a…
  • Herzog by Ebert: by Roger Ebert

    Two of the most admired and beloved figures in cinema are celebrated in this slim volume t…
  • One Night in Miami

    One Night in Miami’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it fee…
  • Revisit: W

    To take the time to highlight W’s status as a born-again Christian while largely ignoring …
  • Oeuvre: David Cronenberg: Videodrome

    Videodrome’s brilliance comes from literalizing the unseen culture war waging at all times…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

One Night in Miami

One Night in Miami’s core issue isn’t that it reeks of the theater, but rather that it fee…