Despite receiving its premiere as part of BBC4’s Storyville season back in 2005, Werner Herzog’s mesmerizing docu-fantasy The Wild Blue Yonder is only now making its British big screen debut. Billed as science fiction but bearing closer relation to the work of Chris Marker and even David Attenborough than Spielberg or Lucas, the film utilises footage shot on the space shuttle STS-43, along with haunting images photographed beneath the polar ice cap, all loosely held together with a rambling, delusional voiceover by actor Brad Dourif.
Dourif’s character claims to be an alien from a planet somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, a frozen ocean planet known as the Wild Blue Yonder. His people fled an unnamed ecological catastrophe, travelling for thousands of years across the blackness of space before finally arriving at Earth. Their history on our planet seems confused: Dourif at first describes them as being greeted like heroes, but later their presence seems to have been forgotten, with the exception of those members who infiltrated their way into the political or scientific communities. Dourif himself claims to have worked for the CIA, where he was involved in the cover-up surrounding the Roswell incident.
But these aliens are far from the advanced, benevolent angels of sci-fi lore; they’re not even malevolent infiltrators or invaders. As Dourif himself points out, ‘most aliens suck’. The survivors have been travelling for so long that they’ve forgotten much of the science that made their journey possible, and their time on Earth has largely been spent attempting to assimilate into human society, becoming a nation of little Thomas Jerome Newtons, building a separate community complete with congress, senate and shopping mall, a hopeless enterprise that soon fell into disrepair because ‘nobody wanted to buy anything’.
But the plight of the survivors merely sets the stage for the main plot of the film: the journey of six Earth astronauts to the dying oceans of the Wild Blue Yonder. Initially fleeing a microbial outbreak on the home planet (which turns out to be a false alarm) the astronauts travel through newly discovered ‘chaos tubes’ which connect distant stars and galaxies to one another. They explore the new world, scoping out sites for settlement. Then they return to Earth, only to find that hundreds of years have passed and the entire planet is deserted, returned to its primeval state. Where the inhabitants have gone is a mystery which Herzog leaves open, suggesting the possibility that they have either scattered to the outer fringes of the universe, or just as likely wiped each other out.
The bulk of the film’s visual content fits into three categories. The first depicts Dourif wandering in aimless frustration around a dilapidated desert town, ostensibly the proposed site for his great alien capital. The earlier parts of his story are occasionally intercut with flickering historical footage intended to represent the arrival and assimilation of the original ‘alien founding fathers’.
Then there is genuine space footage, shot by NASA astronauts in Earth orbit exclusively for this project. This footage bears little relation to the story being told, merely depicting the inhabitants of a tiny, cramped spacecraft going about their daily routines. Dourif’s voiceover describes the pressure these so-called interstellar travellers are under, but we see very little evidence of this onscreen. There is also very little footage of outside, the Earth below or the stars above, merely repetitive shots of astronauts eating, exercising, or lying down to sleep.
The distant Wild Blue Yonder is represented through footage shot beneath the polar ice cap by Henry Kaiser. These are the most visually exciting moments in the film, as the ‘astronauts’ explore this pale, barren underwater world, drifting through floating clouds of geometric ice shards, or exploring the great husks of half- formed coral structures. Dourif’s voiceover becomes notably more lyrical here too, remembering his homeworld in simple but poetic terms.
Running through all three sections of the film are a series of interviews with slightly deranged Caltech scientists, who use equations and computer models to explain unfathomable concepts or describe the ludicrous physics behind interstellar ‘chaotic travel’. Like random excerpts from alternate universe Open University lectures, these little snippets of scientific banter are perhaps the most entertaining portions of the film.
It’s hard to say how seriously Herzog takes any of this. Between the fantastical concepts of the aforementioned professors and Dourif’s dry, ironic musing, the film displays an awareness of its own absurdity completely at odds with the hauntingly beautiful underwater sequences, or the flatly scientific NASA footage. The voiceover continually points out its own conceptual flaws, describing the search for other Earth-like planets in our solar system, introducing the concept of the alien disease then just as quickly abandoning it. At times it’s as though Herzog is simply uninterested in the real science behind the fantasy, at others it seems like a ploy to make us question the veracity of Dourif’s statements, treat him more like a deluded madman than a real live ‘alien’. Similarly, the references to sci-fi staples like Roswell or wormhole travel walk a fine line between pandering to and mocking the clichés of science-fiction cinema and literature.
There are points at which The Wild Blue Yonder feels like something genuinely new, a radical and fascinating approach to the presentation of documentary footage. But at others it feels random and rather amateurish, attempting to tie together disconnected reels of ‘found’ footage in a manner awkwardly reminiscent of Ed Wood. It’s hard to divine exactly what the film is trying to say: there’s certainly an ecological subtext here, but it’s (perhaps mercifully) buried beneath layers of scientific mumbo jumbo and Dourif’s absurdist rambling. What remains is a fascinating curio; visually arresting, conceptually flawed but never less than entertaining.