The Ramgarh crater in northern India was formed millions of years ago when a large meteorite crashed into Earth. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that scientists began to believe that it was an impact basin. It is difficult to judge from the ground whether it is a crater. The thing is just too big to record in one go. Still, the cluster of temples in the center of Ramgarh suggests that ancient cultures recognized that there was something special about the place, even if they didn’t know it was formed by a rock from outer space. Investigating the effects of meteorites is always scientific, but it is often spiritual, and it is the tension between those two disciplines that Fireball.
Written and directed by Werner Herzog, the documentary aims to understand extraterrestrial geology, to trace all the ways meteorites have impressed far beyond the rims of an individual crater. Herzog and his co-director, the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer of the University of Cambridge, of course interview boffins gazing over meteorites in their lab, as well as a jazz musician searching for micrometeorites on the rooftops of Oslo, an indigenous painter who records alien stories in the outback of Australia, and a Jesuit watching over a meteorite collection at a remote European observatory. “Each stone has its own story,” says Herzog.
Oppenheimer traces the genesis of Fireball, which appears on Apple TV+ on Friday, to a visit to the Korean Polar Research Institute, which sponsors an annual expedition to Antarctica to collect meteorites. When Oppenheimer saw the vast collection of meteorites stored at the institute, he knew there was a bigger story to tell. “I was struck by the significance these stones have for understanding the earliest period of the solar system and the building blocks of life on Earth,” he says. “I just immediately felt that meteorites are a phenomenon that speaks to us on both a scientific and metaphysical level.” Oppenheimer previously worked with Herzog on In the Inferno, and when he pitched the German author for a movie about meteorites, he didn’t have to wait long for a decision. “It lasted five seconds and it was clear we were going to do it,” Herzog says.
Meteorites are the perfect subject for a filmmaker like Herzog. His best work has always featured subjects occupying liminal spaces where two worlds collide: East and West, the human and the supernatural, the digital and the analog. Fireball fully fits into this tradition. Meteorites are both a local phenomenon that has shaped communities and an existential threat to the entire planet. They are messengers from the deep past, heralded as omens and inert bits of matter that carry the building blocks of life. They are the source of both scientific and spiritual wonder, and in this regard meteorites have much in common with the people who study them.
Even Fireball is apparently a scientific documentary, it doesn’t feel that way. “Documents about science are always very predictable, and a lot of them are too didactic,” Herzog says. “We said we will never be didactic, we will give insights of a deeper nature than just science.”
While Herzog and Oppenheimer drop plenty of mind-boggling facts in the document, they also know when a hand gesture will be enough. (Do you real do you want to know the mathematical basis of a quasicrystal? I didn’t think so.) Fans of Herzog will also enjoy his moody and often humorous voiceovers, which transform a Mexican port town into “a beach town so godforsaken you want to cry” and stray dogs basking in a crater in beasts that are too stupid to consider the cosmic implications of their tanning bed.
More than 100 tons of space rock falls to Earth every day. Most of these meteorites arrive as microscopic particles of cosmic dust, but every once in a while one large enough comes along to shape the fate of an individual, a community, or the entire planet. This is what Herzog meant when he said that each of these stones has a story. It feels natural to assign meaning to a natural event caused by random fluctuations in a numb universe. Sometimes the story begins with a meteorite. Other times it’s how the story ends.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.