2 stars (out of four)
"The Wild Blue Yonder" is at times playful and inventive, at others simplistic and silly. Ultimately, Werner Herzog's free-form, idiosyncratic devolution of the documentary is beautiful but dull.
Herzog is not just tweaking conventional non-fiction films, he's re-imagining their content. With transparent, fey self-mockery, he delivers a "science fiction fantasy" about an extraterrestrial alien and narrator (perennial oddball Brad Dourif), relating how creatures from another planet came to ours some time ago.
Meanwhile, the alien's message is an ultra-cautionary one about the fate of our own orb. He details the saga of a team of astronauts forced to leave Earth's orbit and go on a mission--by means of time-warp pathways navigated in part via string theory--to other galaxies to find earthlings a new home. Ours, by this time, has been devastated by unspecified disaster.The astronauts wind up on the alien's old planet, now under water and uninhabitable. They return to Earth some 800 years later, thanks to the nature of time-space travel, and find our planet returned to its prehistoric state.
But the most distinctive feature of "Wild Blue Yonder" is not its story but the elements of its composition. Herzog crafts his singular, visual depiction of all this with a melange that includes actual footage shot aboard a 1989 shuttle flight, dreamy Antarctic underwater sequences and quick-take interviews of Dourif glimpsed in such weird locales as the front of a demolished mobile home in the desert. "The Wild Blue Yonder" is the cinematic equivalent, at times, of found art. Real mathematicians are interviewed or puzzle over equations, presumably in on the gag.
The scenes of astronauts mundanely afloat on their spacecraft are droll, but come off as a kind of junkyard echo of the legendary intergalactic boredom captured by "2001: A Space Odyssey." The watery vistas are gorgeous. So, too, is the inventive score, melodic and otherworldly, its haunting vocals evoking Native American or East Indian music. In fact, it's an original composite from a diverse musical group including Dutch jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger, Senegalese singer Mola Sylla and a Sardinian choir.
The whole enterprise is quaint but indulgent and precious. The long, lingering shots of galaxies far away or bubbling spectacles of ocean spray and floating jellyfish are exquisite, but they are also like images that have been around in science documentaries for decades. Dourif's rants on human folly swing back and forth from the insightful to the insipid, and much of the movie plays as an inside joke that's not that clever or funny.
Herzog devotees will no doubt enjoy this as a kicky experiment. But it's really a pretty and beguiling waste of talent and time, more worthy of a team of eager, promising neophytes on their first assignment for an undergraduate filmmaking course.
'The Wild Blue Yonder'
Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:21. No MPAA rating (suitable for most ages, though scientifically complex).