It can feel fragile, living on a planet that’s floating around in space, at the mercy of the vast, unknown cosmos. According to my worst-case-scenario-conjuring imagination, Jupiter could let out a giant hydrogen fart and nudge a Texas-sized meteor toward the sun! The impact could screw with solar chemistry, and civilization as we know it will be extinct! Maybe? Probably not, but as radiant as an open night sky full of twinkling stars can be, the extent of space’s mysteries can send the mind reeling. In spite of everything we know, 99.9% of everything is still unknown, man.
In the transfixing new film Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds, documentarian Werner Herzog and his occasional partner Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at Cambridge, consider the strange dichotomy of meteorites. After falling to Earth, the alien artifacts become records of our cataclysmic past. They’re also prismatic, geometrical works of organic art. Throughout history, societies have kneeled before the godly power of meteorites. As Herzog and Oppenheimer capture in the film, the same energy runs through scientists obsess over fragments, perched up on pedestals in immaculate labs. They are majestic bullets, varying in degrees of destruction.
With Fireball now out on Apple TV Plus, I spoke to the co-directors over Zoom about their emotional relationship to science, what they see in meteorites, and most importantly, whether I should see a professional about my meteorite-related worries.
Fireball transported me to one of my recurring daydreams. I’ll walk down the block, look around, and imagine a giant meteor slamming down into Earth and ending everything. Or the moon suddenly exploding. Do you think anxiousness over our inability to know and control our place in space is common? Or am I out of control?
Werner Herzog: I think you’re out of control.
It’s most unlikely to be hit by a meteorite. It only happened once, in the ’50s, and in the film, we see that a meteorite almost hit a dog in the dog house in Costa Rica, which was very recent, just weeks before we filmed it. The most remarkable thing about this meteorite was its scent. Clive could sniff out the scent, which was four and a half billion years old. How the cosmos, the solar system smelt 4,500,000 years ago. But it’s unlikely, and the dangers are minimal.
Clive Oppenheimer: Werner, to be fair, you have speculated on being struck by a micrometeorite moving at 20 kilometers a second that would completely perforate you, but leave you standing for a week. Probably while soliloquizing flippantly while observing the thing.
Herzog: [Laughs] The idea is that it would be wonderful to be perforated by a micrometeorite so tiny that you stand for another week before you collapsed. This is what we speculated. When grown-up men are far out in the Australian desert, and they only have a bottle of whiskey left, they start to contemplate things like that.
Oppenheimer: I promised Werner that if it happened, I would use him and the perforation as a pinhole camera and finish the movie, using Werner as the optics.
You mentioned the moon exploding — Werner, do remember that story of the chronicle by some monks in Ireland a thousand years ago, where they seemed to have recorded an impact event on the moon? And there’s even some speculation of a particularly fresh crater that is now observed astronomically, that it may be a candidate for this fairly young impact crater on the moon.
Herzog: It must have felt incredible for some monks observing that, on the moon, something strange was happening, like a huge fountain rising up and bending down and coming down to the moon.
Oppenheimer: And they recorded such things because they were seen as portents. This was God intervening in human affairs in some way to give these signs. Comets as well were seen as very potent signs of what might pass in the future.
Herzog: But you can go back to the National Enquirer, some 20 years ago, there was a headline saying that President Clinton was missed by a foot on the White House lawn by a meteorite. In the same National Enquirer issue, you could read that, strange even for himself, Michael Jackson was pregnant. So think about your chances to become pregnant, and that’s about your chances to be hit by a meteor.
I’m amazed you remember what the National Enquirer was printing 20 years ago.
Herzog: It’s so wonderful. It’s such wonderful fantasy. It’s so absolutely crazy. And it appears in print. And it’s in every single supermarket in the United States.
Why was now the time to make a movie about meteorites? Was it a journey you’ve always wanted to embark on or did something recent inspire you?
Oppenheimer: So the idea actually came spontaneously about a year after our film on volcanoes, Into the Inferno, was released, on a trip I made to South Korea. I visited the Korean Polar Research Institute. Most meteorites studied scientifically are found in Antarctica on annual searches — the Americans go, the Japanese go, and the South Koreans and others. And it was while discussing with the meteorite expert at the Institute and seeing their ultra-clean lab where they’ve curated a number of the meteorites that they found … they were so beautiful. They’re so unusual. These rocks, unlike terrestrial rocks you find, were very beautiful iron and nickel, and were almost like stained-glass windows, with beautiful gemstone quality.
And it struck me there and then that this was another fabulous topic for us to explore. Yes, it’s a science topic. Yes, it’s geology. But it’s so much more: Meteorites, impact craters, and shooting stars have meant so much to people around the world and through history, as relics to venerate. One of the holiest relics in Islam is the Black Stone set in the wall of the Kaaba, the Grand Mosque, which is thought to be meteoritic in origin. Why is it that so many cultures think of heaven as “up there,” and something that falls from heaven must be a message or a messenger? So I got back from that trip and I put a few ideas together and got in touch with Werner.
Herzog: I was on board instantly. There was no “Should I do it?” It was clear that’s what we got to do. As a storyteller, you know if something is big.
There’s a moment in the film where you call the impact scene from Deep Impact “beautiful.”
Herzog: Because it’s sheer fantasy, and it’s very well done in terms of cinema with special effects. I must confess, I have not seen the film. I’ve only seen excerpts, but I knew about this footage from the trailer. I said, “We have to have that in the film.” It looks awesome. And we negotiated with intensity to get the permission to use this. We had to pay for it, but it was worthwhile. It’s movies. We are not mainstream Hollywood cinema, we are doing something different, but we can acknowledge that what was created is actually very interesting and beautiful.
Do films like this help us grapple with the existential questions about meteorites and cataclysmic destruction?
Herzog: No, come on, they’re movies. Strange aliens in Star Wars, the beautiful events mentioned, we will never see them. They do not exist out there — period.
Oppenheimer: There’s quite a deep tradition though, cinematically, of [dealing with] these topics. There’s a beautiful, extraordinary film from 1916, a Danish film called The End of the World, and it’s exactly this scenario, where astronomers identify an object through their telescopes and predict that it’s going to strike the earth. Even in the 19th century, there was anxiety of the possibility of Earth being hit by an extraterrestrial object. So this has quite a deep cultural resonance in literature and film.
In the film, you interview an expert on quasicrystals, a thought-to-be-impossible crystal pattern that was discovered in a meteorite. But Werner, in voiceover, you admit that the concept is way too confusing to understand, so we should just know that it was wild that it happened. So when does the science matter? What’s its relationship to storytelling?
Herzog: It’s the excitement of science and the sense of awe. That’s exactly what science and filmmaking have in common. If I didn’t have a sense of awe, I wouldn’t have any of my films, including the feature films.
Oppenheimer: I’d add in curiosity and a fair lashing of obsession as well. When I do my work on volcanoes, it’s somewhat like filmmaking, in a way: You’re on location, you’re very, very focused to get what you’re after, what you’re trying to address, and then you get back home and you’ve got an awful lot of data to analyze, and what patterns might emerge from it and what it all means. You have to have a sort of endless curiosity to do that kind of thing, which is a lot of poring over spreadsheets of data and plotting things and every which way. I’m trained in geology, in natural sciences, but I’m in a geography department here in England. And so I rub shoulders with colleagues working in the humanities and the social sciences. With both of our films, on volcanoes and meteorites, it’s not the science that motivates me so much as how the nature and the culture are really deeply entangled.
Fireball spans the history of the cosmos, and the storytelling paints pictures of events we could only imagine seeing in real life, so it often has a time-traveling quality. Which made me wonder: If you could go back to any point in history to witness an event with your own eyes, what would it be?
Herzog: For me, it would be the 5th or 6th century after the collapse of the Roman Empire, where, all of a sudden, all knowledge was wiped out. Philosophy, science, poetry, everything antiquity had achieved wasn’t there anymore. And only a small amount of islands, monasteries, some libraries, like in Alexandria, preserved some of the knowledge. It was a time of complete transition, a time where all achievements of the human race, human intellect, were lost.
Oppenheimer: I would also put my time machine in reverse. I’m more interested in where we’ve come from than where we’re headed. I agree, 6th century is a very interesting period. One of the things I carry out research on with colleagues in other disciplines in history and in tree-ring studies, ice-core studies, one of the things we tried to do is look at how very large volcanic eruptions and also clusters of very large eruptions have changed global climate. They have had very strong repercussions and ramifications for human societies, because they’ve impacted on pasturage, and they’ve impacted agriculture.
The 6th century is one of the largest episodes of volcanism, as we see in ice cores from 536 and 540. This ushers in one of the coldest periods of the last 2,000 years, lasting a century or so. It’s now called the Late Antique Little Ice Age. So this would be a wonderful time for me to time-travel to. If not there, I’d go all the way back to 74,000 years ago and the time of the Toba super-eruption. There’s been so much debate about the impact that had on human ancestors.
Are there any great unknowns you’d want to solve?
Herzog: It’s overwhelming what’s out there, unknown. That’s the beauty of our existence.
Fireball is streaming now on Apple TV Plus.
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