Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Of meteors and men

Documentary film “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds”, which was released on Apple+ in last November, is alternatively sublime and amusing with its genuine interest and fascination in meteors. As hopping from one interesting place to another around the world, the documentary calmly and humorously explores how meteors have been associated with the history of the Earth as well as the humanity, and we are never bored mainly thanks to its co-director Werner Herzog’s inquisitive approach coupled with that distinctively quirky sense of deadpan humor of his.

After the opening scene showing the Day of the Dead festival in Merida, Mexico, Herzog and his co-director Clive Oppenheimer, a British volcanologist who previously collaborated with Herzog in two documentary films “Encounters at the End of the World” (2007) and “Into the Inferno” (2016), promptly begin to examine how meteors have influenced societies and cultures throughout the whole human history. For example, it is highly possible that the sacred black stone in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which has been the keystone of one of the largest religions in the world for more than one thousand years, is actually a big meteor, and the documentary also shows us how a small meteor fallen on a small French village in 1492 led to the rise of one of the most powerful royal families in the European history. As a matter of fact, this incident generated so much fuss all around the Europe that, according to the remaining records, it even eclipsed what Christopher Columbus achieved in that year.

Thanks to Oppenheimer, Herzog could meet and interview various meteor experts in addition to going to a number of different crater sites such as Wolfe Creek Crater in Australia. In Oslo, Norway, they met a local jazz musician who is also an amateur expert on micro-meteor and meteor dust, and this dude is really enthusiastic as he and his close colleague, who incidentally has a very interesting life story of illness, show their small passion project on meteor dust, which is being poured upon the Earth a lot even at this point. On the surface, those tiny meteor dusts collected by them look rather inconsequential, but they soon show their hidden beauty through a specially designed camera equipment, and then we are told about how diverse they are in terms of shape and structure.

In case of Paul Steinhardt, some meteors provided valuable evidences for his longtime research on ‘quasi-crystal’. Thanks to the mathematical proof from recent Nobel laureate Sir Roger Penrose, Steinhardt came to find that quasi-crystal is indeed possible in theory, but he still needed the proofs from the nature. That consequently led to his long and arduous expedition in the middle of a remote wilderness area of Siberia, and, fortunately for him, that expedition turned out to be successful enough to support his theory.

The documentary later leads us into a heavily controlled storage room full of many different meteors, and we hear more about why they are so valuable for many different scientific researches. Mostly having been in the space for around 4.5 billion years, they can provide geological clues to how our planet was formed, and it is highly likely that meteors were involved with the early history of life on the Earth as they actually can function as vessels for organic materials such as amino acids and, yes, DNA.

In contrast, as many of us know, meteors can also be agents of destruction and extinction. Even a meteor of around 50 meters in its diameter can be quite more destructive than an average atomic bomb, and it is estimated that the mass global extinction of dinosaurs and many other species, which happened around 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid of around 10 kilometers in its diameter. As a matter of fact, the crater generated at that time was so massive that it was discovered only after the extensive geological mapping of a certain region of Mexico during the 1970s. Compared to what happened there 65 million years ago, the place in question looks so depressingly plain and mundane that Herzog’s deadpan narration cannot help but become a bit more sarcastic as the camera looks around here and there.

It goes without saying that the same thing might happen again in our future, and the documentary naturally moves onto the ongoing surveillance project at an observatory on a big and high mountain of Hawaii. Three experts who work there gladly explain and demonstrate how they work day by day, and you may be relieved to learn that 1) the sky is constantly being monitored even at this point and 2) there is actually a more plausible way to avert a global catastrophe than what is depicted in those several recent disaster flicks including “Deep Impact” (1998), which incidentally appears in the documentary more than once to our little amusement.

Herzog and Oppenheimer later go to a South Korean research station in Antarctic, whose vast ice plain has been a bountiful reservoir of meteors for many decades. While this part is surely reminiscent of what was shown in “Encounters at the End of the World”, the documentary provides us its own wonder and amusement, and I certainly got amused from time to time as observing a few Korean details within the research station (“We do not come here for kimchi and lobsters”, says Herzog at one point).

On the whole, “Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds” is another superb documentary from Herzog, a great filmmaker who has constantly given us interesting subjects to reflect on via his many acclaimed documentaries ranging from “Lessons of Darkness” (1992) to “Grizzly Man” (2005). While entertaining and amazing us with many interesting aspects of meteors, the documentary will make you reflect on our mere existence on the Earth more than before, and you may find yourself looking up toward the night sky with more wonder and curiosity after watching it.

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