Werner Herzog could spin a fascinating movie around anything: dwarves, Alaskan grizzly bears, conquistadors, volcanoes, madmen dragging steamboats up the sides of mountains. The great German director has also made a few works of startlingly pure cinematic poetry, and ''The Wild Blue Yonder," the latest in a remarkable mid-career renaissance, falls into that elliptical camp. The director calls the film a ''science-fiction fantasy," but it's really a languid meditation on human impermanence.
Still, there are aliens here. One, at least: as portrayed by Brad Dourif, the onetime Billy Bibbet of ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and now a grizzled, pony-tailed wraith, the extraterrestrial addresses the camera in sarcastically funny outbursts, describing how his people arrived from a frozen planet in the Andromeda galaxy and completely failed at invading Earth. Standing in the ruins of the city the aliens built (actually a ghost town south of Los Angeles), he bemoans its fate: ''Nobody came, nobody settled, nobody shopped."
The extraterrestrial proceeds to relate the story of a manned human space probe that left Earth after the CIA opened up the Roswell aliens and released dangerous microbes into the atmosphere -- which turned out to be not that big a deal, actually -- and here Herzog illustrates the long space journey using actual footage shot by the crew of a 1989 space shuttle mission. The astronauts eat, float, and work with bland good cheer, and Herzog lets the shots unreel for minutes at a time, underscoring them with the alien's disgusted pronouncements and a most unholy musical soundtrack (more on that later).
The found-object approach to moviemaking continues when the travelers arrive by chance at the alien's home planet, the Wild Blue Yonder, and plunge into its frozen atmosphere. What we're watching, really, is footage of scuba divers under the ice-sheet of Antarctica (the avant-garde musician Henry Kaiser is among them, apparently -- could this get any weirder?), but the crystalline blue light and squiddly sea creatures create a convincing and awe-inspiring otherworld.
The film's score goes a long way to transporting us there, combining the talents of Dutch jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger, the Senegalese singer Mola Sylla (singing in her native Wolof), and a five-man Sardinian shepherd choir, all under the strict, wondering hand of Kapellmeister Herzog himself. Fittingly, the results sound like nothing previously recorded on this planet.
Peppering all this lovely folderol are interviews with real-life scientists explaining string theory and interstellar space travel; it's never quite clear whether they're in on the joke or part of it. Herzog plays with the conventions of sci-fi but he obviously has no patience for them -- for their wish-fulfillment fantasies and paperback ironies. His vision of life on Earth (and off it) is bleak, unsoothing, and oddly beautiful, part of a career-long obsession with man's distance from the natural world that barely knows he's there. Slow as evolution and with as many fetching dead ends, ''The Wild Blue Yonder" ends not with a bang but an unsettlingly peaceful sigh.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.