Dir: Werner Herzog. France. Germany. USA. Mexico. 2015. 93 mins

Salt And Fire

An environmental scientist and the CEO of a multinational corporation clash over an impending ecological disaster in South America, in this esoteric drama from Werner Herzog. Much of the film unfolds against the admittedly arresting backdrop of the Salar de Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, although the lack of coherence in the screenplay suggests that Herzog discovered the location first and then tried to assemble a story around it.

The overcrowded score just adds to the suspicion that the filmmakers don’t have much faith in the screenplay.

Herzog’s name, plus the involvement of Michael Shannon and Gael Garcia Bernal in the cast will likely spark some interest on festival and arthouse circuits. However this talky and unfocused drama, with its vague, non-specific environmental themes, lacks the dramatic or thematic power to generate much in the way of critical or word of mouth support.

Based on the story Aral by Tom Bissell, Salt and Fire introduces us to three scientists, lead by Laura (Veronica Ferres) the professor who is heading up the delegation. Bernal is amusing as Dr Fabio, a sleazy scientist who uses the night flight as an opportunity to paw at Laura’s breasts. Volker Michalowski, playing Professor Meyer, rounds out the trio. Their mission is to investigate an unfolding environmental disaster in South America – the Diablo Blanco. We are never told exactly what Diablo Blanco entails, however the literal translation suggests that it has something to with the exploitation of the land by corporations from colonising countries.

When the delegation arrives, however, they are swiftly bundled onto another flight and greeted by paramilitaries in balaclava helmets who muscle them into cars and drive them to an isolated ranch. At this point, the two male scientists disappear from the story, and professor Laura becomes the focus. Her abductor, it turns out, is Matt Riley (Michael Shannon), the CEO of ‘The Consortium’ which is somehow implicated in the environmental catastrophe.

This section of the film is dramatically somewhat inert, consisting of stilted discussions on philosophy, biochemistry and a brief reference to the history of legal proceedings against animals. Then Laura is shoved into another car, as a matter of urgency, and driven out to vast salt flats surrounding a dormant volcano which is showing signs of unexpected activity; the salt and fire of the title, as one character helpfully points out.

Once there, Laura is abandoned, along with two blind twin children. She sets up camp, using the supplies which were dumped at the same time, and settles down to wait for rescue. But she finds that the eerily featureless expanse of sand starts to change her perception of the world.

It’s certainly a striking location for a story: a blinding white sun-baked blank slate on which anything can be written. It’s just a little unfortunate that the story Herzog chooses to tell is so frustratingly enigmatic and unformed. Characters waffle about aliens and conspiracies, science fiction and time travel. But nobody seems to have anything insightful to say about these themes.

Music is used extensively, the quizzical woodwind at the start of the film mellows into a plaintive cello motif. But the overcrowded score just adds to the suspicion that the filmmakers don’t have much faith in the screenplay.

Production company: Construction Film, Benaroya Pictures, Skellig Rock, Inc., Canana Films, ZDF, Arte

International sales: International Film Trust inquiries@iftsales

Producers: Nina Maag, Werner Herzog, Michael Benaroya, Pablo Cruz

Screenplay: Werner Herzog

Cinematography: Peter Zeitlinger

Editor: Joe Bini

Production design: Uli Bergfelder

Original score: Ernst Reijseger

Main cast: Michael Shannon, Veronica Ferres, Gael García Bernal, Volker Michalowski, Lawrence Krauss, Anita Briem