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When the most exciting bits of a globetrotting documentary about asteroids and meteors are clips from the melodramatic, 1998 disaster flick “Deep Impact,” you know that a beat has been missed. Such is the case with “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds,” writer and codirector Werner Herzog’s latest true-life exploration into the unknown, which, despite its share of stirring imagery and impressive locales, proves too sluggish and diffused to have much, well, impact.
Herzog, a leader of the New German Cinema who gained fame in the 1970s for writing and directing such art-house classics as “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Nosferatu the Vampyre,” has long alternated between narrative and documentary films. But the prolific, iconoclastic filmmaker has seemingly received more attention for the latter in recent years, with such titles as “Grizzly Man,” the Oscar-nominated “Encounters at the End of the World,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” and “Into the Abyss” among his standouts. (And let’s not forget his acting roles on “The Simpsons” and “The Mandalorian.”)
Still, there’s a kind of grandiose, flirtingly doomsday approach to “Fireball” and its examination of that which falls to Earth that doesn’t fully square with the film’s wonky, eager and overly talky presentation of history, science and anthropology.
Fascinating stuff is at play here amid the heady theorizing and arcane references (panspermia, anyone?). But it’s blunted by Herzog’s clipped, Bavarian-tinged narration that’s by turns logy, deadpan and florid. Maybe his trademark voice-overs have simply worked better in the past.
This time, Herzog remains almost entirely behind the camera as his codirector, British volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, also seen in Herzog’s “Encounters” and “Inferno,” serves as onscreen proxy. The genial, studious professor tours a mix of far-flung sites that have been profoundly cratered or otherwise affected — culturally, spiritually, mythically — by asteroid contact.
At such destinations as Wolfe Creek Crater in Western Australia and the region’s volcanically formed Mer Island; the Ramgarth Crater of Rajasthan, India; Ensisheim, Alsace, France (where a meteor landed in late 1492); and the Kukulcán Pyramid of Chichén Itza, Mexico, Herzog and company explore the mysteries and meanings of asteroids with input from local experts.
There’s a visit to the sacred Kaaba shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (it was captured only on cellphone footage: non-Muslims Herzog and Oppenheimer were not allowed in), where we witness mass adoration for the Black Stone, an ancient Islamic relic believed to be a meteorite. But is it really? “Almost certainly,” Herzog says, but apparently that’s debatable.
The film takes us to Chicxulub Puerto, a Yucatán Peninsula beach resort that Herzog theatrically dubs “so godforsaken you want to cry,” where 66 million years ago an explosive meteor (or fireball) is said to have caused such epic devastation it led to the demise of all nonflying dinosaurs. The resultant crater: a whopping 93 miles in diameter and 12 miles deep.
Also on the Yucatán, we’re treated to stirring scenes from a Day of the Dead celebration.
Oppenheimer chats at length — sometimes intriguingly, other times tiresomely — about meteors and asteroids with scientists, geologists, astronomers and others from such varied settings as Maui’s Pan-STARRS Observatory, NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Arizona State University’s Center for Meteorite Studies, Princeton University, the Vatican Observatory at the Pope’s summer residence and an Oslo sports stadium.
A trip to Antarctica, however, in which Herzog and company hunt meteors across the glaciers with an ebullient member of the Korea Polar Research Institute, is the film’s highlight, replete with a wealth of vast, dazzling vistas. Crisp camerawork by frequent Herzog collaborator Peter Zeitlinger is excellent throughout.
In the end, though, it’s hard to pinpoint the doc’s exact takeaway. Its subject matter is contemplative and alluring, fearsome and wondrous, yet often inherently inconclusive, made more so by the musings and dissections of the film’s eclectic array of voices — including Herzog's.
Perhaps it’s all best summed up by one observer when he says of meteors: “Sooner or later there will be a big one — and we’ll be watching.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.