The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) & Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

The Wild Blue Yonder:  I just watched this fictional, quasi-documentary style film by Werner Herzog after watching his documentary about an American scientific research facility in Antarctica (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007), which recently played at the DFT.  Encounters provided the viewer with amazing footage of undersea-and-ice life on the sub continent.   As Herzog tells the viewer at the beginning of Encounters, he was compelled to make the trek to Antarctica to shoot the documentary due to Henry Kaiser’s amazing undersea footage.

Herzog’s classic style of filming his subjects (the usually awkwardly long moments of pause) is always appealing.  The way he sets his documentary subjects up for interview and just lets them go on with their stories regardless of how tangential those stories may be, makes for many comical moments throughout the film.  Five or six times the entire theatre quaked with laughter at Herzog’s extra-diegetic commentary about his subjects’ long and drawn out stories.  

Encounters is documenting not only the eccentric individuals at the facility and the scientific research that is going on there, but it is making a relatively overt statement about our (i.e. humankind’s) overuse of the planet. Ultimately, Herzog is, I think, making it pretty obvious that we have outlived our time here and the Earth will right itself, and purge us from our selfish existence.  He comes right out and says it, or rather, some of his subjects say it to the camera.  Herzog provides documentary footage of Shackleton’s exploration of the antarctic ice, and makes what I interpret to be a comment on human exploration in general: that we go to far for the glory.

This brings me to The Wild Blue Yonder because in it, the narrator makes an acerbic comment about those hubristic explorers who dared to defame the world’s mountains (i.e. the trash and corpse heap left on Everest comes to mind).  Thus the two films are linked: lack of respect for our planet’s natural wonders, coupled with the imperial desire to stake claim for our beloved motherlands, is all contributing to our own demise. 

With The Wild Blue Yonder, released two years before Encounters, Herzog used some of the same undersea footage shot by Kaiser and coupled it with NASA footage in order to make a fictional film.  I found a few interesting themes in the film that I’d like to address:  1. the delightfully appropriated science, etc. of Kubrick’s/Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2. MALLS and 3. the extinction of mankind and the Earth re-righting itself without us.

First, in Wild Blue, it was delightful to see the science of the fictional space journey to be at least loosely based on the near-accurate (so I’m told) science that it takes for 2001‘s ship, Leonov, to slingshot past Saturn and into Jupiter’s orbit.  In Wild Blue, Herzog has his ship slingshot around Venus to get to Jupiter.  Anyway, it’s the same idea.  In Wild Blue, the human astronauts find an ice planet (where the earth-bound narrator originally came from) that has primitive live living undersea:  in 2001, Europa, a satellite of Jupiter, is found to have primitive life on it.  And, thirdly, in Wild Blue, in order for the human astronauts to get back to Earth, they go up through an ice portal that de-materializes them into pure light energy:  this is the cipher for the enigma of what happens to Dave Bowman at the end of 2001.  Well, 3 likely connections between the two film texts make for me an interesting find.

Second, in Wild Blue, when the alien-narrator and his people arrived on earth, they decide to set up a city to compete with Washington D.C.  In that city they build a Mall with shops, a Pentagon, a Supreme Court, etc.  They thought for sure the mall would attract people, but it didn’t.  When the humans reach the alien’s icy home planet, they survey it to determine if they can found a civilization.  In true Herzogian humor, one of Herzog’s faux space experts (albeit a REAL mathematician) declares that the best type of civilization that could be founded on alien soil would be one based on Malls and shops.   

What does this say about our imperialistic priorities according to Herzog?  Divide, conquer, build malls? Seems the universe is in sync on that one: if you build a mall, people will come….or not perhaps.  At some point, the human race will be beyond malls…one would hope.

Lastly, when the star-children return home from their seeming 15-year excursion into outer space, the real number of years that have passed is more like 800.  In the interim 800 years, all humanity has disappeared. In our quest for advancement, we’ve managed to (nearly) extinct ourselves (the astronauts-turned-star-children are technically alive to repopulate).  But that’s not the point.  The Earth purged itself of us in 800 years.

This brings to mind a classic SF tale: H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.  In it, the Time Traveller makes it to the year 802,701 (yes, I remember the year exactly!) and while “humanity” hadn’t quite eliminated itself, what remained was a twisted perversion of the master-slave dichotomy:  the Morlocks  & Eloi.  The Time Traveller had assumed humanity would progress to infinite potential in those interim years but, at best, it had retrogressed to a primitive stage unimaginable to the nineteenth-century psyche.  

But like all good fiction, Wells had a point to make: If I can conceive of it, it may happen, so beware of your actions in the present.  There have been many prescient (science) fiction writers from our literary history who have successfully predicted trends in science, politics, etc. (Wells, Huxley, Orwell, Clarke, etc.) I think Herzog is doing the same thing with his two films here:  predicting that perhaps in 800 years, or more or less, our imperialistic-driven, commodification-hungry, super-computer, mega-ton capabilities will mean nothing when the Earth decides to right itself, and write us out of her history.

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