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Werner Herzog on Fireball, his new film about the awe-inspiring power of meteors

The renowned German director behind a new film about the creative and destructive power of meteors says he isn’t losing sleep over the idea of space debris barrelling into Earth anytime soon.

“We should not plan and think and prepare ourselves for a big impact. Let’s just live life in its fullest,” Werner Herzog told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.

“If a sucker is coming in at us, we’ll be transformed into star dust.”

Herzog’s latest film, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, takes viewers around the world as he and co-director and British scientist Clive Oppenheimer explore the connection meteors have to science, history and mythology.

Fireball, which is the pair’s third film together, premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday.

They speak to our destiny. Will another big impact in the future … cause another mass extinction?– Clive Oppenheimer, scientist and director

Oppenheimer said what is so intriguing about meteors is that they speak to our curiosity about the universe, and the creation and destruction of life.

“They speak to our destiny. Will another big impact in the future … cause another mass extinction?” 

“It’s this human fascination, as we’ve said, through time, for meteorites, for shooting stars. They’ve had meaning.” 

Studied throughout history

In the 19th century, Oppenheimer explained, there was talk about panspermia — the idea that organisms or seeds of life are distributed through meteorites.

“At the same time … an apocalyptic mood grew from the recognition that large rocks could fall from space.”

More recently, he said, a protein was discovered in a meteorite that fell to Earth from space, and serious research continues into how this may have sparked life — or whether it means life exists elsewhere in the universe.

“There’s a long tradition to this dialectic of creation and destruction,” said Oppenheimer.

Meteorites also figure prominently in mythology and religion, Herzog said.

Co-directors Oppenheimer and Herzog. Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds is their third production together. (Apple)

Fireball introduces viewers to people from the Torres Strait Islands, off the northern tip of Australia, who believe the souls of the departed ride on meteorites into the netherworld, he said.

And in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the Black Stone — believed to be a meteorite — holds great significance in Islam. Stories say it came from heaven and was given to Adam to place in the first Kaaba, however, it is not allowed to be studied scientifically for religious regions, Herzog said.

“It’s a very fascinating sort of bouquet of events and mythologies and historical shifts that we have received and witness through meteorites.”

‘A feeling that’s hard to describe’ 

Fireball isn’t the first film to explore our sense of fear and wonder with meteors. Hollywood has tried to glamorize and create panic around meteors with movies like 1998’s Deep Impact.

But what science and filmmaking share is a sense of awe and discovery, said Herzog — a feeling the directors captured in real time for Fireball when Oppenheimer discovered two meteorites for himself during filming in Antarctica.

“When you find a stone out there, it’s a meteorite. It’s not anywhere near where rocks are being eroded from the Earth’s crust …. You go out there and you find a stone and you know it’s come from space,” Oppenheimer said of his “extraordinary” finding.

“You’re touching the oldest relics from our solar system — more than four and a half billion years old. It’s the oldest thing I’ve ever touched …. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.”

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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