Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
For more than 40 years, a favorite subject matter for the great filmmaker Werner Herzog has been the relationship between mankind - and especially the oddballs, dreamers and eccentrics that it has to offer - and the cruel, mysterious forces of nature, the world and universe. So, it should come as no surprise that the director's latest documentary - "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World" - takes a similar approach to that world, often cruel and mysterious itself, known as the Internet that is slowly swallowing up the rest of civilization around it.

As always, Herzog's approach is one of fascination, bleak skepticism and wonder, which results in a film that is often funny, educational, occasionally disturbing and even frightening. The picture is arranged into chapters that cover everything from the birth of the Internet, which includes interviews with several men who first created the foundation for the web, to the dark side of Internet anonymity and what the future holds - namely, possible relocation to other planets and, in the nearer years to come, all of us being replaced by robots.

In some ways, the film is all over the place and, yet, Herzog, himself a celebrator of chaos, makes it all gel together. It also helps that the director, who has, perhaps, the most recognizable voice of any German alive today, narrates the picture in his trademark style, one in which it's often difficult to discern whether he's attempting to be funny or serious. My favorite two examples are when he asks a robot's designer, "do you love it?," and his description of the hallways of a prestigious university that appear fairly bland and prototypical as "repulsive." Another scene in which a woman describes the Internet as the "manifestation of all evil" would have been funnier had the reason for her doing so not been so tragic.

One of the strangest sequences - and you can depend on pretty much any Herzog movie for delivering a few strange moments - the director interviews a group of people who live in the wilds of West Virginia in an area not affected by cell phone towers. These people claim all types of physical reactions to living in a world dominated by the Internet and technology and it would seem easy to laugh them off, but Herzog doubles back to them at the very end of the film following a scientist's chilling prognostication and instead of the aforementioned people seeming like kooks, they display a type of human interaction that threatens to be lost in the years to come.

Herzog's body of work is divided into his terrific fiction films - the masterpieces "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Stroszek," for example - and his fascinating documentaries that have explored the farthest regions of our world and some of its most offbeat characters. My favorite of his nonfiction work is "Grizzly Man," which I still believe to be the best documentary of the 21st century thus far.

"Lo and Behold" could, however, end up being one of his most prophetic. It's unsettling to see the degree to which rational people and experts - scientists, inventors and cyber security workers - discuss horrific concepts in "Lo and Behold" -  including everything from how the earth could effectively shut down if the Internet collapsed to questions of whether our species will survive - and Herzog is an effective narrator, posing questions that obviously interest him - such as whether the Internet can "dream" - and helping to navigate his audience through a series of complex concepts in the manner of a bemused, occasionally grandiose and thoughtful storyteller. As a glimpse into our uncertain future, the funny and unsettling "Lo and Behold" is certainly worth a look.

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