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Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds

Year: 2020
Production Co: FILM srl
Director: Werner Herzog/Clive Oppenheimer
Writer: Werner Herzog

Years ago I read a book called Where Underpants Come From by a Kiwi author who bought a five pack of briefs from a department store and wondered how the manufacturer could make any money from the purchase price.

He decided to research and track every step in the process through multiple factories, farms, manufacturers and distributors across China who processed cotton, assembled seams and rubber waist bands and beyond.

So it was ostensibly about underpants, but that was just the jumping off point for a travelogue about modern China and its place as the goods manufacturer of the rest of the world. The book covered the economics, work practices, people and industrial infrastructure that let him buy goods so cheap.

Fireball is the same. Along with scientist Clive Oppenheimer, Werner Herzog seems on the surface to be talking about meteors. But it's not about meteors, it's about what we do because of them and the effect that have on geography, culture and art.

It's also not about obvious hallmarks of culture, like the extended sequence of a troupe of performers in the South Pacific doing a ceremonial dance on a beach at night that pays tribute to objects in the night sky.

In another chapter, we meet two scientists who sit in an office near a mountain top observatory looking for anything that might have moved against the background (and thus represent a potential threat to Earth) in pictures of space. Then there's the team of Korean scientists who fly into the sheer, flat heart of Antarctica where the ice is kilometres thick and look for tiny black rocks on the endless sheet of white – fallen meteors that don't have oceans, dirt or forests to get lost in.

Like all Herzog's documentaries, there's an air of soulful profundity as his distinctive clipped way of speaking waxes lyrical about where you are and what you're seeing (although it does raise a smile when he describes a township on the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, which was formed in part by the Chicxulub impact 65 million years ago, as 'godforsaken').

You might enjoy it, but if you're someone with a keen interest in astronomy like I am you might come away slightly disappointed. There's plenty of pictorial and video evidence of large bodies arriving on Earth around (and, almost like it's expected, the film does include a few of the famous clips of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor and the huge double smoke trail) and that's what I was expecting and wanted more of.

But Herzog and Oppenheimer just don't seem as interested in that stuff. They want to look at how meteors impact the way we live our lives no matter what our culture, background or the level of technology we live with. If that sounds like your cup of tea you might get more out of it than I did.

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