Of all the colorful eccentrics that Werner Herzog has collected over his years of making documentaries about interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places, Clive Oppenheimer is among the least-colorful and least-eccentric. He's a volcanologist at Cambridge, and it was in this capacity that he was doing fieldwork on Antarctic volcanoes when Herzog traveled to that continent to film his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World; Oppenheimer was one of those encounters, studying one of the world's only volcanoes where liquid magma is exposed to the open air. The filmmaker and the scientist hit it off well enough that they worked together on a follow-up project, 2016's Into the Inferno, which gave them a joint "a film by" credit, and now they've worked together a third time on a film that has nothing to do with volcanoes at all: Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, a film about the cultural and scientific importance of meteors and comets, which has at last given Oppenheimer an official co-director credit.

That's a fairly dry opening paragraph to a film review, I acknowledge, but it serves two functions. First, Fireball is a fairly dry film, and I would not want to give you the wrong impression. Second, there's a very real way in which this is the "diluted" version of a Herzog film, and Oppenheimer is the source of that dilution. It feels very much like a variation on the model of Into the Inferno, which provides its exact narrative structure: Herzog and Oppenheimer travel to different places around the world that give us something to talk about with meteors, however tenuous the connection, and spend some time learning from the people they find there. This can be purely symbolic, as in the opening sequence on the YucatΓ‘n Peninsula, where the filmmakers observe an indigenous dance ceremony using fire, and Herzog implies in his characteristically florid narration (he is in full "self-aware filmmaker leaning into his brand" mode in this film - not by any means my favorite Herzog mode, especially coming on the heels of his last documentary, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, where he seemed to have gotten away from that quite a bit) that this fire-dancing might be a dim cultural memory of the incredible fireball that landed in this part of the globe tens of millions of years ago. No, it's clearly not, but "inscrutably mashing together the mundane and the cosmic" Herzog is my favorite Herzog, or close to it, and he gets off quite a few good observations in that vein here.

The film an also be totally straightforward and direct, such as when Oppenheimer meets with actual astronomers to talk about observing meteors using state-of-the-art technology, and it can be everything in between that and its abstract symbolism. So I will say this much about Fireball: it absolutely get the job done as far as trying to sketch out a cross-section of all the different ways humans might interact with meteors. It is, in this respect, a much more focused film than Into the Inferno, which found a way to bring a lengthy aside in North Korea into it study of volcanoes. This is, on the one hand, a nice change: it means that the whole 97-minute film feel like it belongs together, making one macroscopic argument that builds through all of its examples. On the other hand, it clearly robs the film of some of its spontaneity. Part of the great joy of Herzog's travel documentaries is how he assembles relationships between elements that make no sense together, only some intuitive link in his strange mind, and yet the film ends up insisting on this relationship so persistently that you can't help but see it yourself (the quintessential example, I think, being the albino crocodiles at the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Fireball has some of that assembly-by-intuition, especially sliding smoothly between symbolic, scentific, and artistic registers, and in the way it keeps nodding back towards YucatΓ‘n as its base of operations. But it all makes sense, all fitting together in a clear argument that is more informative than transporting, and while that's nice if the purpose of the movie is to teach us more than we knew about meteors, I don't love it if the point is to create new ways of seeing and thinking about images.

And so, back I go to: Herzog, but diluted. The film itself draws attention to that: Oppenheimer is our constant on-screen tour guide, a scholar talking with other scholars for the most part, and Herzog limits himself to providing the voice-over narration. At one point, he includes footage that, he insists in narration, represents the only time in all of the footage that he poked around from behind the camera to interact with one of the people Oppenheimer was meeting, and it's to crack an extremely bad joke; the kind of bad joke I think he might have made at several earlier points in his career, to be sure, but when it's the only point that Herzog "enters" the film, it feels pretty silly and self-congratulatory, and the effort he takes to call attention to it in the narration doesn't help with that feeling.

The point being, Fireball ends up leaving Herzog, his ebulliently morbid Bavarian accent, and his cock-eyed way of looking at the world feeling like they've been pasted atop a much simpler and more sober-minded science documentary, almost like an exercise in re-dubbing a movie with new dialogue. This leaves it feeling awfully thin as a Herzog film, since so much of that narration feels like he's forcing himself to "do a Herzog", though I enjoy the couple of moments he ends up being especially sarcastic and dismissive of things he doesn't like, and other ways of making movies he doesn't approve of. He is, inherently, a charming raconteur. But that's not something that feels organic in Fireball, which seems sensible and contained, no matter how many dreamlike shots of stars it includes, and no matter how many times the film generates ethereal moments of floating drone footage matched to Ernst Reijseger's otherworldly music (Reijseger's score - his eighth for Herzog - is, secretly, the best thing about the movie).

It's not, to be clear, a bad documentary about meteors! The "sweep everything in with a big net" approach yields plenty of interesting combinations of hard data and artful intuition, and it means we get a nice variety of things to look at and think about over the well-paced running time. But it ends up feeling very straightforward, with none of the cosmic grandeur hinted at in its title or promised by its occasional stylistic flourishes. It is a nice, little film, and I think it comes close enough to promising us more than that, that I can justify feeling a bit irritated by that fact.