I got into a conversation this weekend on the subject: can a Werner Herzog film actually count as a misfire? Even if it's inscrutable and unsatisfying to watch, that's probably exactly what Herzog wanted it to be. So even if it's bad, it's still a success.

I shortly thereafter saw The Wild Blue Yonder, and put that theory to the most rigorous test you could imagine. No, Virginia, there isn't such a thing as a bad Herzog movie, but dammit if this one doesn't come close, only saved (like so many Herzog films before it), by how aggressively insane the whole project is.

A title card announces that it's a "Science Fiction Fantasy," and that certainly describes the plot better than I can. But's it's also kind of impossible to describe the film without a baseline, so here I shall try: somewhere there is an abandoned town (it appears to be somewhere in the foothills of the Rockies, but my research hasn't revealed where the film was shot, so let's just say: high plains, and be done with it). Brad Dourif is there - if you need me to explain who Brad Dourif is, you will get nothing at all out of The Wild Blue Yonder, and you can stop reading now - with his hair looking like six kinds of shit, scraggly and grey and pulled into a ponytail. Dourif, playing an unnamed character credited as "The Alien," tells us the story of how his people come from the Andromeda galaxy, on a planet they refer to as the Blue Yonder, and how their grand journey to Earth, in the hopes of building a new national capital/shopping empire ended in dismal failure. Also, how NASA sent a manned mission to the Blue Yonder using a new technology involving blah blah blah streams.

So that's completely psychotic.

Then, over here, there's the other The Wild Blue Yonder. As Dourif narrates, an original score by Ernst Reijsiger plays out underneath images of scuba divers underneath the Antarctic ice cap, filmed by improvisational guitarist Henry Kaiser. The Reijsiger score I cannot begin to describe, without using unhelpfully vague words like "ethereal." To be honest, I'm not sure if it was commissioned for this film, but it couldn't have been any better if it had been. It's beautiful and haunting and all of those vague words that hang off of ethereal.

Thus does a ballet play out. Light plays through the ice and into the water, the swimmers defy gravity, and the camera drifts through space like a jellyfish, carried along gently yet chaotically, without any editorial aim. Later, as Dourif relates the details of the NASA mission, Herzog incorporates footage shot inside STS-34, the 1989 Space Shuttle Atlantis mission that launched the Galileo probe. Much like the Kaiser scuba footage, the space footage achieves a kind of poetic dancing energy set to Reijsiger's music and cut according to Herzog's mad genius for using found footage.

It's hard to overstate the hypnotic brilliance of this footage cut to this music - not that one should be surprised, Herzog has always been just about the most hypnotic of filmmaker. When it works, The Wild Blue Yonder is a tone poem on par with Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi or Ron Fricke's Baraka. I certainly don't want to obscure that achievement, because it's real and it's significant.

It doesn't keep everything from being almost incoherent, however, and I think it would do the film and its director a disservice to pretend that it did. For a lot of the film is not a tone poem: instead, there are scenes of Dourif ranting, Dourif sadly pondering the irony of humans seeking salvation in the ruined planet that his people fled, Dourif describing how business models fail. And there are NASA mathematicians, describing concepts that are either the cutting edge of everything, or are total bullcrap. I don't know which, and I don't think it matters; clearly they're "in" on the film, and having fun acting for this crazy German with a movie camera.

The problem is that it doesn't make a damn bit of sense. I don't mean as a narrative; I'm long past expecting Herzog films to cohere narratively. I mean that I haven't the slightest idea what the point of the Dourif scenes are. I don't understand how they tie in thematically to the found footage and the beautiful, ethereal Reijsiger score. I've put off writing this review for four days, hoping I could figure it out, and I. Just. Can't.

It might be easier to deal with the crazy sci-fi face of The Wild Blue Yonder if Herzog hadn't essentially made this exact film already. In 1992, Herzog filmed the burning oil fields in Kuwait, cut the footage down to 50 minutes, and set it all to late- 19th Century Romantic music, titling the film Lessons of Darkness. The narration, spoken by Herzog himself, suggests that the film is the documentary produced by a team of explorers on an uncharted planet. The director maintains that the film should be thought of as science fiction, not non-fiction.

The only difference between Lessons of Darkness and The Wild Blue Yonder that isn't essentially cosmetic is Brad Dourif. Filming him standing there physically stresses his plotline, whereas in the earlier film, the sci-fi aspect was more organically part of the imagery. And I'll be honest: I don't know if it's satire, or if it's a cautionary fable (neither of those are traditionally Herzogian genres), or if it's something totally else. I just know that it's confusing and weird. Frankly, given that Herzog and Dourif are the perpetrators, I'm entirely willing to entertain the idea that it's there just because they want to be assholes.

After all that, I'm glad I saw the movie, and I have a strong suspicion that I'll see it again someday, numerous times. Incoherent Herzog is still far more interesting than almost anything else. Indeed, incoherent Herzog is probably more interesting than coherent Herzog. World's a crazy place, after all.

...I don't know...6?/10