Werner Herzog’s The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) defies easy categorisation. It can be described simply as an experimental film or, more specifically, an experimental found footage film. It can also be called a multimedia collage. Alternatively, it can be classed as a poetic, fantastic “documentary”. This is because it combines non-fiction codes and conventions with an impossible narrative while also bringing together otherworldly archival imagery and found footage with rapturous, non-diegetic music. The result is a film with hypnotic power which immerses the spectator in a sublime world of cinematic time and space. As Brad Prager has suggested, “The Wild Blue Yonder is intended to be a mesmerising ecstasy” (1). At the same time, and as I will discuss in more detail shortly, one of the reasons The Wild Blue Yonder is hard to classify is because in addition to being aesthetically spellbinding, its narrative also achieves a particular kind of distancing effect. However one may wish to try and categorise it, The Wild Blue Yonder is the most unconventional and challenging work Herzog has hitherto made in the new millennium (2).
What constitutes The Wild Blue Yonder’s 82 minutes includes material sourced from the space shuttle archives at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Herzog searched for this material as a result of his fascination with what has become known as the Galileo suicide-mission (3). Galileo was a probe which NASA sent to the Jovian system in 1989 in order to study Jupiter, its moons, and other galactic objects that exist in the outer solar system. After travelling through space for almost six years, and then collecting data for a further eight, the probe was sent into Jupiter’s atmosphere and destroyed. The material found at the Propulsion Laboratory includes a 16mm film shot by astronauts while inside the space shuttle Atlantis in orbit around the Earth. It is an actuality-styled film that documents the crew interacting and going about their routine activities as they prepare Atlantis to deploy the Galileo probe. The sourced material also includes visual data that was sent back to Mission Control from the probe’s imaging system. This visual data shows abstract, spectral-filtered imagery of Jupiter, its moons, and other bodies in the solar system.
In addition to this archival material there is also underwater imagery in The Wild Blue Yonder that was shot in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation’s US Antarctic Program. This imagery was recorded on a small, digital camera by the musician and part-time research diver Henry Kaiser (who showed Herzog the footage while working on the soundtrack to Grizzly Man ). Kaiser’s camera roves around a vast, liquid world which is illuminated by sunlight. This sunlight penetrates a thirty feet thick layer of ice that Herzog describes as being like a “frozen sky” (4). In this liquid world Kaiser’s camera records various marine specimens, including translucent, ethereal jellyfish.
What loosely holds such material together is a story narrated on and offscreen by Brad Dourif, who plays a character simply called The Alien. This story is partly based on an original and convoluted idea that Herzog had for another film he made 25 years earlier: Fata Morgana. In this earlier film, the Sahara was going to be treated as an unknown planet discovered by aliens from the star Andromeda. On this unknown planet there would be creatures that were aware that their planet was going to collide “with the sun in exactly sixteen years” (5). The images seen on screen were going to be presented as material the aliens had recorded of this doomed planet, but which had then been discovered and re-edited by “human filmmakers… into a kind of investigative film akin to a very first awakening” (6).
In The Wild Blue Yonder, the alien’s home planet is in the outer regions of Andromeda. However, unlike with the original idea for Fata Morgana, it is not an imminent catastrophe that is the problem for the planet, rather the fact its main star is dying. In the fictional world of The Wild Blue Yonder, the aliens launch various space missions to find other hospitable places to live on. Mirroring this situation, human beings send out a manned space probe to find another world to colonise, given they believe Earth is under threat from a mysterious microbe. By discovering the existence of chaotic time tunnels, the astronauts are able to travel to The Alien’s home planet and document its environment and life forms (and Herzog uses the underwater imagery shot by Kaiser to represent this extraterrestrial world).
The Alien’s story is not designed to be believed, at least not in the classic narrative sense (7). In the dramaturgy of various art forms, including conventional Hollywood storytelling, the goal is to have spectators accept the reality of the fictional world depicted. In other words, story and plot elements should be experienced as pre-existing and given; the spectator should be caught up with what is being represented. Even if spectators momentarily slip out of the web of reality woven by a narrative, and become aware of the illusory nature of what they are seeing or start to ask questions about why the narration is constructed the way it is, the idea in classic drama is that the spectators’ consciousness will move back into a mode that is sufficient for them to be affected by what occurs in the diegesis. Even in those films that draw on the conventions of classic narrative drama but which are heavily bound up with the unlikely or unbelievable, such as certain science fiction films or supernatural horror movies, the ideal is that narrative absorption dominates over spectacle and self-reflexivity.
In films like The Wild Blue Yonder, the aim is to never have spectators fully immersed in the story reality depicted on screen. Rather, spectators have to actively choose to suspend their disbelief. Moreover, they have to do so in relation to images that are not made to deceive them. For example, no costume, make-up or visual/auditory effects are used to make Dourif look or sound extraterrestrial; he simply appears as himself. Furthermore, the underwater footage recorded by Kaiser, which the narrative presents as images of The Alien’s home planet, includes full-body shots of scuba divers moving in the water and moments where Kaiser’s diving gloves can be seen holding the edge of the digital camera lens. This visually reinforces a fact the spectator already knows: what they are seeing are images that were shot somewhere on Earth. There are many other similar moments in the film where The Alien’s narration is deliberately constructed to be inadequate, even ludicrous, in respect of what is shown.
Scholars such as Thomas Elsaesser and Brigitte Peucker have contended that Herzog creates discordant relationships between narrative and image in order to privilege visual over linguistic experience (8). However, I would argue that in the case of films like The Wild Blue Yonder, Herzog creates such a discord in order to enact a modern, romantic gesture par excellence; namely, the poetic elevation of the commonly known or familiar. This elevation occurs through an individual’s conscious employment of imagination and faith in order to transform generally accepted knowledge and the routines of everyday life. There are two things that make this poetic elevation modern and romantic. First, the individual knowingly enacts such poeticisiation rather than doing it unconsciously or believing it to be the effect of a cause external to them. Second, they use their imagination and faith in order to convert dominant structures of knowledge while, at the same time, still accepting that which, within their culture, is widely held to be likely and believable. This modern, romantic gesture is encapsulated in Herzog’s version of Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) when, in response to Dr. Van Helsing’s scientific scepticism, Lucy Harker remarks: “Faith is the amazing faculty of man which enables him to believe those things which he knows to be untrue”. Such faith is required of the spectator in The Wild Blue Yonder if they are to experience the world through the eyes of a narrator from another galaxy. In other words, the film encourages the viewer to reflect on their own reactions to what is happening onscreen and to be aware of the fact that their powers of mediation are necessary for the images to obtain a reality effect.
- Brad Prager, The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth, Wallflower Press, New York, 2007, p. 119.
- Herzog has also called the film a science fiction film, a label he has attached to other works such as Fata Morgana (1970) and Lektionen in Finsternis (Lessons of Darkness, 1992). Prager has said that in calling these films science fiction films, Herzog is suggesting that they show the Earth through alien eyes. The aim, suggests Prager, is to create an aesthetic experience for the spectator that transports them to a position beyond familiar and conventional ways of experiencing the world. In other words, science fiction elements are employed in these three films not so much “as a means to imagine a future than as a means of imagining some standpoint other than our own, or seeing our world from a vantage point from which we would be led to question our present day habits of vision” (p. 175).
- See “Exploring with Werner”, The Wild Blue Yonder, DVD, Special Feature, Subversive Cinema, 2005.
- “Exploring with Werner.”
- Herzog in Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p. 47.
- Herzog in Herzog on Herzog, p. 47.
- By classic narrative drama I am referring to an aesthetic system, a set of widely held formal and stylistic norms, which influences cinema as well as literature and theatre.
- See Thomas Elsaesser, “An Anthropologist’s Eye: Where the Green Ants Dream”, The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Methuen, London and New York, 1986, pp. 133-56; and Brigitte Peucker, “Werner Herzog: In Quest of the Sublime”, New German Filmmakers: From Oberhausen Through the 1970s, ed. Klaus Phillips, Frederick Ungar, New York, 1984, pp. 168-94.
The Wild Blue Yonder (2005 Germany/France/Austria/Britain 82 mins)
Prod Co: Werner Herzog Filmproduktion Prod: Andre Singer Dir, Scr: Werner Herzog Phot: Henry Kaiser, Tanja Koop, Klaus Scheurich Ed: Joe Bini Mus: Ernst Reijseger
Cast: Brad Dourif