Werner Herzog will always be remembered as one of Germany’s greatest directors, and creative forces in general. A man with numerous classics to his name (such as Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu the Vampyre or his impressive array of non-fiction documentaries), it’s easy to overlook some of his less lauded works. Indeed, sometimes this is a fair reaction to pockets of such an immense body of material. In the case of The Wild Blue Yonder however, we have a film truly deserving of brighter spotlight.
The concept is a captivating one from its inception, if at first – deliberately – alienating. Beginning with an intense introduction from Brad Dourif in one of his strangest, and most tragically unsung, roles, we slip ethereally into his story of alien colonisation. Playing the role of an extra-terrestrial, we start to take in his mad, rambling story as if it were fact. After all, Dourif truly throws himself into the part; it’s tough to see him as anything other than what he portrays – a bitter, disenfranchised and lonely immigrant to a land of which he holds little respect.
Where the true inspiration of the movie rests is in the merging of this evocative yarn with an inventive use of reintegrated footage. Ever rolling on, the extra-terrestrial tells his tale – an emotional expulsion on his race’s plight and subsequent settling on earth. Against this we see glimpses of the world he speaks of. Beautiful in its icy wonder, we follow across this seemingly far off landscape, and sail through its distant waters, all while listening to the rabid nostalgia of our narrator who calls it home.
Then we realise that, beyond the fourth wall, what we’re seeing is (of course) Earth itself. The spectacular skill of Herzog’s in this film is to hand-hold his audience into forgetting that fact, then remembering it again at times when it may be poignant. Although mere stock footage, it becomes art when elevated to the level of alien landscape – enhanced by a heartfelt and genuine performance from Dourif in harmony with an ear for gorgeous, yet somehow otherworldly, music.
A vast majority of the piece is made up of real footage provided by NASA; interrupted by location scenes featuring the extra-terrestrial and some brief cutaways to amusing pseudo-scientists. What are, in actuality, simple training exercises, or every day activities for astronauts of the time, grow into something imbued with much more imagination and playfulness. As we hear of a secret CIA mission for mankind to colonise the extra-terrestrial’s “Blue Yonder” homeland, we go with them on their fictionalised journey. We explore with them through the depths of the otherside. And yet, all the while, we’re merely watching the routine jetsam of NASA’s filmic charity.
The coalescence of footage, story, performance and music in such a unique and striking way is something that has to be taken away from this experience. Inside, beyond the admittedly long-stretches of artistic ambience, also lies a fundamental and profound tale – quite childlike in its simplicity. Definitely not a film for everyone, I still personally rate The Wild Blue Yonder as one of the world’s most intriguing and originally conceived pieces of science-fiction cinema. Whilst held back by its own directional philosophy at times, it is nonetheless a work worthy of any sci-fi, Werner Herzog or cult enthusiast’s attention.