Werner Herzog’s ‘Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds’ Hurtles Through a History of Meteors and Deeper Musings

There are documentaries and then there are documentaries made by Werner Herzog. The legendary German director never loses his ability to take any subject and use it to expand into wider questions about existence. “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” is Herzog’s latest collaboration with seismologist Clive Oppenheimer, with whom he has explored the science and poetry of regions like Antarctica. In this new offering for Apple TV Plus, the two travel to corners of the world where one can find craters and evidence of meteorite impacts. You learn a lot while watching this documentary but it also features a profound meditation on how easily our species can face destruction. In this case, it is a form of cataclysm that has occurred several times in the planet’s history and could easily happen again.

With Herzog’s trademark narration, which ranges from educational to existentialist, the documentary opens over the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula, where scientists have found the crater of the asteroid that is believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. From there Herzog and Oppenheimer give us a tour that can almost be termed lush apocalypticism. They travel to Australia and gaze at the Wolfe Creek crater, a massive space where locals still make art celebrating its existence and believe it is a place where they can stay close to their ancestors. That is just one example of how for Herzog, the history of space objects hitting our world goes beyond science and connects to our life as a species in ways we may not always ponder. For example in Mecca the black stone Muslims consider holy might be a meteorite. In India ancient Hindu temples rest inside another massive crater left by an impact from long ago. Mexico’s Chicxulub Pueblo looks dilapidated yet nearby are dinosaur footprints embedded forever in rock, for Herzog they are testament to a dimwitted species unaware catastrophe was hurtling towards them. 

Since his earliest documentaries in the 1970s, Herzog has had a gift for finding real life personalities more colorful than any fictional character. In Norway he and Oppenheimer sit down with Jon Larsen, a jazz musician and amateur scientist who has apparently pioneered the science of finding “micro-meteorites,” which are essentially space particles he collects atop Norway’s largest sports complex. He zooms in on them photographically with another amateur scientist who enjoys dressing up like Wyatt Earp. It may sound quite out there, but you can’t deny the dazzling photos they produce of material that seems otherworldly. In Ensisheim, France a giddy historian and polymath explains the history of a meteorite that crashed at about the time Columbus was landing in the New World. At the time it was seen as a portent that favored the Habsburg dynasty. Another scientist who runs a lab housing many space rocks and samples seems a bit too excited to lovingly show pieces of soil turned to glass by the enormous heat of an ancient meteor strike. These moments are as memorable as the North Korean soldiers singing to a volcano in Herzog’s “Into the Inferno.” As with his stunning documentaries such as “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Herzog combines these intriguing experts with stunning visuals of craters and rock materials, capturing an aesthetic wonder that goes beyond a mere educational documentary. Oppenheimer is also a great co-host. He sits down with an Indian scientist who explains how minerals and even sugar-like content have been found in crater sites and gives detailed narratives of what exactly happens when one of these big rocks slams into Earth. 

Yet coursing through the narrative is Herzog the cinematic thinker and near-philosopher. All the science is for him just part of the grander, cosmic human question of existence. When he films local French who run an organization about the Ensisheim meteor, he wonders how often they consider the possible extinction of humanity. At one point he even inserts footage from Mimi Leder’s 1997 asteroid movie “Deep Impact,” reflecting on its existential power. The possibility of apocalypse becomes more present in the later sections of the documentary, when Herzog and Oppenheimer visit an observatory in Hawaii where scientists keep an eye out for any new objects that may aim for our planet. A NASA official describes the work of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which has the job of responding to any serious meteor threats. One possible defense mechanism is to explode a nuclear device next to the object, thus pushing it away from our atmosphere.

There are few directors as versatile as Herzog. By now he is as renowned for his documentaries as for his classic dramatic movies. That quest for understanding the human experience evident in early films like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” is present in all of his work. “Fireball” is about a particular kind of science but at its core it is about how small we are in the universe. He opens the documentary with footage from the 2013 meteor that exploded over Russia. It is a sobering reminder of our fragility. That same sense of our place in the cosmos also leads us to make deep and spiritual reflections. Herzog, like no other director, combines the two. We may be smarter than the dinosaurs but nature has a way of taming any species.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” begins streaming Nov. 13 on Apple TV+.