Dourif plays the unnamed narrator, an alien from the Andromeda galaxy, who arrived on Earth many years ago with others from his planet. Their plan was to build a city at the strategically placed crossing point of two train lines (insuring lots of crowds for the inevitable mall), one so grand it would rival Washington D.C. Herzog shot Dourif's bitter, ranting monologues in a bombed out, desolate area south of Los Angeles, visual proof that the alien's urban plan never materialized, mostly because, in the words of the narrator, "aliens suck." With the settlement a non-starter, he went to work for the CIA, where he gained knowledge of the Roswell Incident. As it turns out, the captured Roswell ship was part of the alien's interstellar convoy. But when NASA examined the space vessel, they accidentally released unidentified gases that, it was thought, would threaten all life on Earth. So NASA sent a manned probe into space to find a new home for mankind.
Such a story could easily go big, as budget-busting special effects surround A-list cinema heroes. But Herzog knows not from special effects and he finds the most fascinating, down-market way of telling this tale. With the cooperation of NASA, he uses amazing archival footage of the space shuttle and additional footage shot under an Arctic shelf. Scenes of the space crew eating, sleeping and working during their intergalactic voyage are comprised of material shot by astronauts on a 1989 shuttle mission. Scenes of the crew exploring the narrator's home planet is actually underwater footage shot in the Arctic. What's marvelous is how material shot in one context can be sold, unquestioningly, in an entirely different context. For instance, a jellyfish swimming by a diver becomes an Earthling encountering a beguiling alien species. Successfully driving the narrative is Dourif, who does a nifty dance here: he rants like a crackpot, but we never wonder for a moment if he's lying or not who he claims to be.
The film's success is due in no small measure to the magnificent score by Ernst Reijseger, which combines a Sardinian choir and the solo voice of Senegalese singer Mola Sylla singing in her native Wolof. The music is reminiscent of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", but the effect is different. Instead of helping facilitate a 60s freak-out, the music gives the movie a mournful, one-world flavor, as our primitive, insignificant planet reaches out to save itself.
With its high-concept combination of pre-existing science footage and new material, the film sounds like a silly experiment, a lark from a director whose eclectic tastes drove him too far from his own eccentric orbit. But "The Wild Blue Yonder" doesn't feel like an experiment and, in fact, fits neatly into the overall themes found in much of his work: whether the battle is between man and bear ("Grizzly Man"), man and mountain ("Scream of Stone") or man and outer space ("The Wild Blue Yonder"), we cannot skirt the rules of the natural world, no matter how obsessively-driven the person or cleverly-designed the plan. Starring Brad Dourif. Directed and written by Werner Herzog. Produced by Andre Singer. No distributor set. Science-fiction/Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 87 min