I just watched Werner Herzog’s 2005 science fiction fantasy film The Wild Blue Yonder, and am left in that rare position of not having much to say of the film that could really change the opinion of a viewer, pro or con, toward it. This is not because it is good nor bad, simply because it is one of those works of art that is not even on a good/bad scale. It is beyond such reckoning, a purely aural and visual experience for most of its 81 minutes, and thus has an effect similar to the phantasmagoric end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yet, as appealing as that is, the film then has intercut documentary footage of a 1989 space shuttle mission, interviews with NASA scientists who speak all sorts of gobbledygook, and snippets of actor Brad Dourif as a psychotic alien (or kook who believes he’s an alien) spouting even more nonsensical stuff about his being part of an earth invasion force from a planet in the Andromeda galaxy, whose planet froze over and became uninhabitable. That planet is improbably called The Wild Blue Yonder. Dourif, despite Herzog’s praise of him on the DVD audio film commentary, as one of the best actors around, is nothing of the sort. He scowls, jibber-jabbers, and just plays a standard mentally ill person throughout most of the film — often ranting about how aliens all suck; which is wholly disconnected with the collaged NASA footage of the space mission, the interviews, and other footage of a musician, Henry Kaiser, swimming under Antarctic ice. It’s simply not good acting. Yet, somehow, Herzog makes the most of it, and its utter insanity lends the whole film an air of interest, not unlike Orson Welles’ great pseudo-documentary F For Fake (especially in the digressions on Roswell and scenes of mathematicians arguing on chalkboards), and also a bit similar to his earlier film on the First Gulf War, Lessons Of Darkness.
The narrative, however slight, is this: The alien (Dourif) comes to earth some decades ago, in a Third Wave of colonizers, before the supposed 1947 Roswell UFO crash, because his home planet entered an Ice Age. Upon landing, they attempted to establish their own version of Washington, D.C. out in the California desert, thus justifying Dourif’s rants out in a ghost town. Their failure leads him to the conclusion that all aliens suck — a point he repeatedly hammers home. It also lets him go on about how mankind has ecologically ravaged the earth. He speaks of his CIA involvement, and more found footage, of the Jovian Galileo mission, allows him to hypothesize on the Roswell matter. Then he claims that the aliens brought with them microbial diseases. NASA launches a space mission to find inhabitable planets, but none are found in the Milky Way, until, via silly mathematics, a gateway to the Andromeda galaxy is found — one even the aliens did not know of. As the earth is getting more and more uninhabitable, humans, who shortcutted their way to the alien Andromedan world, decide to explore it. Cue the Antarctic ice footage, meant to portray the frozen atmosphere and liquid helium ocean of The Wild Blue Yonder. While intensely beautiful and hypnotically mixed with the oral sounds of a bunch of Sardinian singers and an African singer, the film becomes really indescribable — but not in that good nor bad way. You just have to watch, whether you like or dislike it. When it’s done, we see that the humans have returned to earth, aged only 15 years (comparisons of the archival footage vs. that Herzog shot for interviews) while the earth went through 820 years, and reverted to a wild state. Humans left the earth, and now treat it as a planetary game preserve. In the audio commentary, Herzog reveals that shots of the high green plateau that ends the film were from Venezuela, part of the leftover footage from his earlier film The White Diamond.
The DVD is put out by Subversive Cinema, the film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and it features a theatrical trailer and trio of fairly interesting making of featurettes. But the centerpiece special feature is the audio commentary by Herzog, Dourif, and Norman Hill, a longtime Herzog collaborator. Herzog, as always, has brilliant moments, as both a describer and raconteur of things. His best moment on the commentary comes at his most bleakest, for, as a man with boundless vision in his art form, he unreservedly and pessimistically believes that mankind will never travel to the stars, even though we theoretically know it can be done — we simply lack the technology and financial resources to do it at this stage of our development. Dourif is very hit and miss, and often rambles on about environmentalism. When asked direct questions by Hill, who serves as the moderator, it’s apparent that he knew very little of the final film’s aims, as he was only paid to read his scripted parts in the desert, and nothing more.
Yet, despite its manifest flaws — such as editing out a good ten minutes more of the space shuttle footage, and numerous oddities — such as Herzog keeping in NASA astronomer Martin Lo’s sneeze an hour and four minutes into the film, The Wild Blue Yonder is one of those film’s it is difficult to stop watching once it starts. It’s like a hallucinogenic Imax nature film. It is innovative even when it is plodding, and addictive even when it is annoying. The film seems almost a requiem for the earth or humanity, even though it ends on an upbeat note. Loneliness dominates the film, and the seminal score by Dutch cellist Ernst Reijsiger and the wailing of Senegalese singer Mola Sylla only adds to that feeling. While I disagree with some critics’ claims that this is a tone poem or cinepoem, there is no doubting the film is rife with poesy in many forms. It’s just that there is too much oddity and narration to qualify wholly on that score; especially with the recurring shopping mall motif that pops up in Dourif’s rants throughout the film — be it in the California desert or under the Antarctic sea ice. And these sorts of rants are just a bit too obvious and politicized for a Herzog film. Usually the director’s rapier is sharpest when most tangential politically.
Of course, the way that the film works best, and most logically, can explain the mixed and matched footage (which, with new context — the inner tale of the film, shows how malleable the seemingly mundane space shuttle images can be), the odd, dreamy music and Tarkovskyan images, is that the Dourif character really is as mentally ill as he seems to the objective viewer. That he is a nut — likely an environmental nut — who has spun this wild tale, and is somehow projecting his dream madness to the viewer. After all, Herzog always has been obsessed with ecstatic truths, rather than the mundaner real world things. And the very fact that the ‘science’ of the film is often utter nonsense, and that the chronology of the film is bizarrely scattershot, makes the Dourif is a nut interpretation all the more plausible; as he seems a hairy descendant of the old 1950s UFO Contactee mythos, casting himself as an embittered and unlistened to potential savior of the earth,
The Wild Blue Yonder will doubtlessly bore many people, and it will turn off still others for a plenum of possible reasons, and in no way, shape, nor form, is this a masterpiece on par with the best in Herzog’s oeuvre. But, even if one views it in the worst way, and calls it a daring failure, it is a film worth watching again. One day soon, I will.