Posted on behalf of Noah Baker
The film Into the Inferno opens with a grand spectacle. The camera glides up and over tiny figures clustered on the peak of the volcanic island of Ambrym in Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Far below, an ominous lava lake splutters to a bombastic choral soundtrack. There is a sense of ritualistic grandeur here that sets the tone for what follows.
The documentary, created by legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog and Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, straddles the science and culture of volcanoes. It is strong on exploring the significance of volcanoes to humanity — their role in local mythologies, traditions and lifestyles, now and through the centuries. The film even suggests that our relationship with these geological giants stretches back to early hominids living in the shadows of volcanoes in East African rift valleys.
Like many Herzog films, Inferno goes off on tangents and strays into quirky side stories, hopping about among unusual locations. One moment we’re hearing from a volcanology station in North Korea, where Oppenheimer, in a rare international collaboration, has been working with local volcanologists for several years. The next we’re in the midst of an archaeological dig in Ethiopia, scientists scraping away at the soil in search of early hominid remains. The stories and locations do link back to volcanoes, but sometimes a little obliquely.
Oppenheimer occasionally brings insights into the science among the craters and cones, but his central quest remains cultural. And that yields a trove — not least the ‘cargo cult’ on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. Its members worship a US serviceman called John Frum, who they claim lives in local volcano Yasur.
Noah Baker is senior editor in Nature’s multimedia team. Hear his Nature Podcast interview with Oppenheimer here.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.