Into the Inferno

Volcanology is a hot job these days.

Volcanology is a hot job these days.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, Maurice Krafft, Katia Krafft, Tim D. White, Adam Bobette, James Hammond, Kampiro Kayrento, Sarmin, Mael Moses, William McIntosh, Han Myong Il, Sri Sumarti, Kwon Sung An, Yonatan Sahle, Yun Yong Gun, Isaac Wan. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

There are few spectacles of nature more awe-inspiring and more terrifying than a volcanic eruption. They are primordial events, part of the continuing growth of our planet. Without them, our planet would be desolate. They are part of what enables life on Earth. It is a powerful reminder of how the Earth created; there are those who believe that volcanoes are the fingers of God.

Studying volcanoes is dangerous work, but it is necessary to understand the forces that shape our world. Volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer met filmmaker Herzog nine years ago when Herzog was filming Encounters at the End of the World and Oppenheimer was studying Antarctic volcanic activity for Cambridge where he continues to work. The two became friends and the partnership between them is well-defined; Oppenheimer acts as an interlocutor as he explains the concepts and science behind volcanology as well as the history of volcanic eruptions and their effect on primitive and modern cultures.

The search takes Herzog and Oppenheimer from the Vanuatu Islands to Indonesia to Iceland and eventually, to North Korea of all places where the communist regime and the dictators who rule it have created a kind of mythology behind Mount Paektu that ties the power of Kim Il-Sung and his successors to the mighty volcano. It is in many ways the most disturbing segment as well as the most amusing.

Throughout there is amazing video footage (some of it shot with drones) of erupting volcanoes; pyroclastic clouds tumble down mountainsides, destroying anything and everything in their path, including the volcanologists who are studying them. This was the fate of the French husband-wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft who got some of the most amazing footage of magma and lava generally by getting much closer than most of their colleagues would dare to go.

But this isn’t just a film about erupting volcanoes. That’s not Herzog’s style. He’s more of a Michael Moore kind of filmmaker; he inserts himself into the story and acts in  many ways as our avatar. This is not just learning about volcanoes, it’s about Herzog learning about volcanoes and their cultural significance. It’s about learning how the violence of volcanic eruption is one of the cornerstones of life. It is also about obsession as nearly all of Herzog’s films are; the volcanologists are obsessive about their field of study, risking life and limb for it and sometimes, dying for it. Herzog identifies with these people; nearly all of his films both narrative and documentary has some sort of obsession at its center. One can hardly blame him; obsessives make for compelling subjects.

I have to admit that I found more majesty in the images than in the context. While generally I concur that ideas are more important than visuals, here the visuals are so awe-inspiring as to render the ideas almost meaningless. When confronted by a river of flowing molten rock, of plumes of superheated gasses roaring down a hill at hundreds of miles an hour, raging at more than 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, everything else shrinks in significance. Volcanoes are living examples of the power of creation. It just doesn’t get any more primal than that.

REASONS TO GO: The images of volcanic eruption are absolutely breathtaking. Clearly there is an affection and reverence for those who study volcanoes as well as the volcanoes themselves.
REASONS TO STAY: Herzog has a tendency to jump around subject matter a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are adult themes and some graphic images of volcanic eruptions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third film about volcanoes that Herzog has directed.- Salt and Fire and La Soufriere.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dante’s Peak
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Jackie

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