If cinema hadn't invented the mad genius filmmaker Werner Herzog, Saturday Night Live would have. Herzog has been lampooned by many, though never better than by himself--The Simpsons, American Dad and Parks & Rec for starters--and when Herzog starts waxing about something ethereal, it's nearly impossible not to snicker at his intense, guttural, constipated strain of narration.
"Look into the eyes of a chicken, and you'll see real stupidity," Herzog once told himself in 2002's Herzog on Herzog. "It is a bottomless stupidity; a fiendish stupidity."
SNL's "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey" couldn't have said it better.
Herzog has directed as many amazing documentaries (Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Into the Abyss) as fiction narratives (Aguirre, The Wrath of God; Nosferatu the Vampyre) but as the late Roger Ebert once said, "Even his failures are spectacular."
I must admit to some glee as I approached Herzog's latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a dive into our internet-shackled addiction to a virtual existence. The thought of Herzog exploring what he calls the "ecstatic truths and falsehoods of the web" will no doubt cause celebration among Herzog acolytes. However, general audiences who may be a bit more benign about Herzog's contribution to modern cinema should approach this film with equal parts sobriety, vigilance and frivolity.
Dividing Lo and Behold into 10 chapters, Herzog explores the dangers of the internet by introducing the family of a car crash victim whose gruesome photos still linger on the web a decade after the tragedy. Moments later, Herzog lightens the mood by introducing us to some scientists who have perfected soccer-playing robots they insist could challenge the best footballers on the planet.
Then, in perhaps the most bizarre chapter of Lo and Behold, Herzog visits Green Bank, W.V., (population 143), which is an internet-free corner of Appalachia. By law, Green Bank is a "national radio quiet zone" because it is also home to one of the world's most powerful radio telescopes, picking up signals from beyond our galaxy. Because of the telescope's sensitivity, the town's residents have no cell phones, radios, televisions or modern appliances. Most of the residents drive old diesel automobiles because they don't have spark plugs.
"I have an unnatural reaction to wireless radiation signals," says one resident. "As soon as I heard about this place, I was here within 24 hours. I have a super-sense to feel those frequencies for cell phones and appliances. It's not a gift, and I would do anything to give it back."
Though Lo and Behold's main thesis is that our planet is doomed due to humanity's addiction to the internet, the one constant throughout the film is Herzog himself. Five seconds in, Herzog's unmistakable voice introduces us to the very first internet-based computer, built circa 1969 (it looks like a refrigerator). Herzog can't seem to resist interjecting himself, time and again, by interrupting the many subjects of his film, preventing them from weaving a cohesive narrative—they fail miserably in the face of Herzog's constant interruptions.
One of the most awkward moments in the film comes when billionaire Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, is talking about his goal to launch commercial flights to Mars.
"Right now, we can't even get one person to go to Mars," says Musk.
"I would come along," Herzog interjects from off-camera.
There's an awkward pause as Musk thinks about how to respond to the 74-year-old's interruption.
"Well, um..." Musk says, hesitating. "I do think we would have to offer round-trips."
Later in the film, Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun wonders aloud if artificial intelligence might produce feature films in the future.
Thrun asks hypothetically, "Will their movies be as good as yours?"
"Of course not," barks Herzog, again from off-camera.
Lo and Behold is a crazy-quilt of different stories that sometimes warn us, other times titillate us about the internet's omnipresence in our lives. But just when the film begins to be provocative or entertaining, it's not. It never achieves thematic consistency. Ultimately, Lo and Behold reminded me of a college-level course unfortunately scheduled for the late afternoon when it's difficult to stay attentive.You know the class is important and you even feel its great value, but there's still a big part of you that wishes the professor would get to the point. Simply put, Lo and Behold is about 40 minutes too long. Why would I expect anything less (or more) from Herzog? Please don't answer that, Mr. Herzog.
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Based on the nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann, the film seems like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and a Joseph Conrad novel—one where the world seems full of possibilities, rather than limitations.