Take an ecological disaster, missing luggage and a tablet with possibly the longest battery life in the world, and what have you got? The latest from auteur director Werner Herzog.
Herzog’s career reaches its fiftieth anniversary next year: his first feature, Signs Of Life, was released in 1968. During that time, he’s directed titles that frequently find their way onto those “best of” lists – Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979) and, best known of the lot, Fitzcarraldo (1982). In more recent years, he’s alternated between TV and documentaries, with only a handful of feature films in between.
His latest feature, Salt And Fire, takes him back to one of his favourite parts of the world, South America. Several of his films were made in Peru, but this time he’s over the border in Bolivia for a story that sets out to be an ecological thriller.
Three scientists are sent to South America to investigate an environmental disaster but are kidnapped by a group of what appear to be terrorists. Their leader turns out to be Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of the organisation responsible for the very same disaster. The leader of the scientists, Laura (Veronica Ferres) is separated from her male colleagues and, after being held at a compound, is taken to experience the disaster at first hand – a massive lake which has turned to salt, but which also lies in the shadow of a volcano, which is threatening to erupt. And she’s left there to survive, accompanied by two local boys, but only given enough food and water for a week.
So it’s very much a film of two parts, all about Laura being held captive in a compound and then captive all over again, but in the open air on what used to be an island in the middle of the original lake. Now it’s at the centre of a vast expanse of salt, with its stunning geometrical patterns. Part one lumbers along, hampered by some heavy-handed exposition and clunking dialogue weighed down by historical and religious references. It also takes us most of the first section to actually understand what’s happening – and that includes that running gag about the scientists’ missing luggage.
The second part is more successful, with what are clearly improvised scenes between Laura and the two local boys. They’re blind and need her constant attention and care under the blistering sun, but they teach her things as well. They can sense the ominous rumblings from the volcano underneath the salt layer – and we witness them as some water in a cup shimmers and shakes. All a bit Jurassic Park, really.
If you can ignore the film’s many incongruities – the parrot that quotes Nostradamus and The Bible, Shannon’s aide who is wheelchair bound and inexplicably walks again, the disappearance of the other two scientists, one of whom is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, and Laura’s miraculous tablet with that battery which never needs re-charging – then you’ll probably make it to the more satisfying second part. But it’s a long stretch and you may have lost interest by then.
SALT AND FIRE (cert.12) is released on DVD & Digital Monday 24th April 2017, courtesy of Solo Media and Matchbox Films.