Much like Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen earlier this year, Into The Inferno—a documentary about volcanoes directed by Werner Herzog—seems like such a no-brainer that it’s hard to believe it didn’t already exist. Actually, this one did already exist, albeit in shorter forms: Herzog’s short doc “La Soufrière” (1977) saw him rush to the evacuated Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in order to record an impending volcanic eruption, and his 2007 feature Encounters At The End Of The World introduced him to volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who worked so extensively on Into The Inferno that he and Herzog share its opening “a film by” credit (though only Herzog is credited as its director). Footage from both of those films gets recycled here, which contributes to a general feeling of déjà vu that’s increasingly common in Herzog’s movies. He seems very much aware that he’s become as much meme as filmmaker, and his heavily accented, philosophically pitiless voice-over narration, in particular, has begun to turn into shtick.
Still, fucking volcanoes, man. Herzog and Oppenheimer travel the globe, from Indonesia to North Korea, peering into the maw of the most dangerous natural features on the planet, capable of obliterating entire cities and even altering the world climate without warning. (The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 was so severe that there effectively was no summer of 1816, global temperature having dropped by nearly a full degree Celsius. Remember, a permanent increase of just two degrees is the catastrophe we’re trying to avert right now.) Some of the most awe-inspiring footage, shot literally just feet away from a gigantic, incredibly fast-moving lava flow, was taken by a French couple, Katia and Maurice Krafft (who wound up being killed while photographing a 1991 eruption in Japan). But Herzog and Oppenheimer themselves get dangerously close to active sites, and the former is soberly instructed that, should all hell break loose, the safest response is not to run in fear but to stand still and look upward, trying to dodge flaming projectiles.
Thing is, though, there’s a good reason why “La Soufrière” ran about half an hour. Into The Inferno only reaches feature length thanks to numerous digressions, like playful but irrelevant shots of little boys from a jungle tribe pretending to be menacing for the camera. For every at least potentially exciting moment at or near the rim of a volcano, the film throws in some meandering anthropology, with Herzog asking the locals of various countries about their relationship with the slumbering beast in their midst. As is now often the case in his documentaries, he asks weird leading questions designed to catch people off guard (and perhaps strengthen his brand), but he doesn’t get as many of the quirky responses that enlivened Lo And Behold, his doc about the internet from earlier this year. Into The Inferno struggles to make volcanoes meaningful, somehow, when the truth is that they’re just badass pipelines to the Earth’s molten core (or its “liquid hot magma” as an overenunciating Dr. Evil would say). As fun as Herzog’s highly imitable voice can be, this particular film arguably works best when he remains quiet and simply stares at the fiery void.