Abandoned planet

Werner Herzog's The Wild Blue Yonder trips out
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cheryl@sfbg.com

Read Kimberly Chun's interview with Werner Herzog here.

I thought for sure the next Werner Herzog movie I'd be writing about would be Rescue Dawn, a harrowing POW drama (and a remake of his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly) due out in late March. But here's a nugget of très Herzogian weirdness to tide you over: The Wild Blue Yonder, which first screened locally in conjunction with the director's 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival appearance. Is there any other filmmaker so prolific and creatively diverse working today? Find me one, and I'll tie on a bandana, retreat to the woods, and name foxes after myself. "Everything that has to do with movies, I love," Herzog imparted on that fateful day at the Castro Theatre amid a discussion that also included a reference to WrestleMania (which he brought up multiple times).

That tacky influence isn't evident in Yonder, dubbed "a science fiction fantasy" onscreen. The pseudodoc plays like 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed with What the Bleep Do We Know? (not to imply that it sucks as emphatically as the latter, but there are certain similarities). Unlike many experimental works, it has a narrative throughline, with Brad Dourif as an agitated refugee from another galaxy. Seems the "alien founding fathers" traveled to Earth when their home planet — a watery wonderworld with communicative wildlife — started dying. As it turns out, attempts to colonize Earth were less than successful. "We aliens all suck," Dourif's unnamed pioneer laments, pacing in front of what was to be the alien version of Washington, DC (really some abandoned buildings huddled in a forgotten rural wasteland). "We're failures!" Meanwhile, human astronauts strike out on their own exploratory mission, ironically earmarking Dourif's homeland as a possible annex for our civilization.

The notions of a ruined planet and a population desperate to survive play both ways, of course — no matter who the native or the alien is. Herzog's theme of environmental preservation is further underlined by the remarkable footage he uses to illustrate the abandoned planet, taken beneath ice caps in the Antarctic Ocean. This strange environment could be outer space, and indeed it offers a dreamier take on interstellar travel than the actual NASA footage Herzog uses, of shuttle astronauts in polo shirts and tube socks going about their zero-gravity business.

As Dourif's voice-over grows more mournful and confrontational, a handful of real-life mathematicians step in for talking-head duty, explaining, among other things, the positive aspects of chaos, the concept of interplanetary superhighways, and theories about colonizing space. One PhD imagines the best way to help humans acclimate to outer limits would be to build a giant shopping mall in space — effectively obliterating anything resembling a fresh start for a population that has nearly ruined itself through overconsumption. Thing is, he's probably right.

At the SFIFF, Herzog explained that he's "too Bavarian" to make the Robert Johnson doc that's been on his mind. But he's not one to shy away from daring music choices; The Wild Blue Yonder's eerie, otherworldly mise-en-scène is heightened tenfold by Ernst Reijsiger's haunting avant-garde score. If aliens ever do make it to Earth — if they're not already here, that is — and they're in the market for a documentarian, they need only see Yonder to know Herzog has the necessary cosmonautical chops.

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