Whenever Werner Herzog directs and narrates a documentary that involves vast landscapes and/or ancient religions, sign me up. Co-helmed with Clive Oppenheimer, Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds involves the pair visiting all the major places on the planet where meteorites have struck the Earth in a way that people—or all life that existed at the time—noticed it, leaving expansive physical craters and, in some cases, birthing ancient religions that still exist today.
The film marks one of Herzog’s more wide-eyed expressions, perhaps because with each new destination, he understands that some physical object made its way across millions (or billions) of miles and landed on Earth where it can be examined and studied, yes, but also marveled at and affect the society around it. If the impact was severe enough, the meteor could instantly wipe out entire species or persons or change the way the landscape allowed new forms of life to evolve. However you look at it, these were world-changing events, as were the appearance of shooting stars or comets in the sky.
Through Herzog’s typically droll spoken words, he manages to make us consider how such an occurrence would change the world today, which leads to a great deal of deep thinking about humanity’s destiny on Earth. There are two fascinating and vastly different sequences in Fireball that stand out: one involves a visit to an observatory operated by members of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (no, not Space Force), which observes the heavens looking for possible impact events. The office is basically just a handful of scientists who examine any possible movement and report any possible threats to NASA. Herzog seems pleasantly amused at how casual the occupants are, considering they may one day hold the world’s fate in their hands. The film makes liberal use of feature films that depict such cataclysmic events (Herzog seems especially taken by Deep Impact) to illustrate what most of us think of when we consider the possibilities of this happening.
The other sequence is a breathtaking one involving a trip to the Antarctic, visiting with a group of researchers who walk across vast plains of ice (preferably not covered in snow) because they know that any rock they find on the surface, no matter the size, is an asteroid. And within minutes of arriving, someone finds what ends up being the largest sample found the entire season (and it’s only about the size of a lump of coal). The visuals of this part of the film are remarkable, vast and even a bit lonely, perhaps like the science of asteroid collection itself. Oppenheimer is basically our guide through this globe-hopping journey, which includes visits to a couple massive collections of such formations of every shape, size and even color (when light it shined on or through it).
Fireball is the type of documentary that could be shown to younger viewers who could easily be inspired to enter this field after viewing it. Herzog and Oppenheimer not only give us spectacular images but find ways of infusing joy and life into this unique branch of studying rocks. Sure, questions of life on other planets come up, but the film’s deepest inquiries have more to do with how life on this planet was altered any time a destructive event took place, and the list is impressive. The film isn’t necessarily one of Herzog’s most probing or disturbing, but that doesn’t stop it from being endlessly entertaining.
The film debuts Friday on Apple TV+.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!