Review: Werner Herzog's LO AND BEHOLD, REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD, A Wry, Meditative Masterpiece About the Internet
A weak internet signal at my job caused massive delays in our daily operation the last couple of days, making us bang our heads against the table in sheer panic mode. This is where the internet got us: We are completely dependent on it, to the point that many of us can't even imagine life without it.
The integration of the internet into our lives was so swift and so complete, we didn't have time to reflect on it properly. There have been films about social networks, gaming, interactive technology, addiction, piracy, technology pioneers and privacy issues regarding the internet. But it's hard to believe that there hasn't been a comprehensive, contemplative take on it until now with Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, directed by none other than Werner Herzog!
It makes sense that only Herzog, 73, a self-confessed neophyte to everything internet -- his internet use is limited to email and occasional Skype, he started using a smart phone not too long ago and very recently discovered the joy of cat videos on Youtube -- can lend a fresh take on such a vast subject with his unencumbered eyes. Only Herzog can turn a hired-gun informercial project (supposed to be six short webisodes on Youtube, produced by NetScout) into a deeply meditative, Herzogian masterpiece.
Honestly, who could be better suited to make a film about the internet than Herzog, one of the master storytellers of our time, who's been continuously documenting vagaries of human life in such a meaningful way?
From its humble origins in the shabby UCLA computer laboratory to robotics engineers to famous hackers to victims of trolling to addicts to astronomers to radiation sufferers to explorers, the famed director leaves no stones unturned. This fascinating inquiry needs no slick graphics nor derring-do camera movement. He relies soly on his usual dry sense of humor, simple but direct questions and amusing observations. And it's as usual per a Herzog film, a hugely entertaining and deeply meditative revelry into quite possibly the most significant invention in modern history.
With the familiar sound of Wagner's Das Reingold in the background, we start with UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, explaining the first communication between the two closet-sized computers from UCLA to Stanford, a few hundred miles away, in 1969. The failed signal that ended up LO instead of LOAD explains the film's majestic title.
Herzog hops through different segments talking to many eccentric subjects who are genuinely amused by the filmmaker's almost naive yet inquisitive questions and observations. Some of the famed interviewees here are early internet innovators like Bob Kahn, Tim Berners Lee, Ted Nelson, Danny Hillis, entrepreneur/inventor Elon Musk, roboticist Sebastian Thrun, astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, and physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss.
Periodic massive solar storms, natural disasters and cyber attacks cause widespread blackouts all over the world. Many of the interviewees warn us that future blackouts are inevitable, that the question should be not if but when. With the food delivery system, power stations, and sewage treatment plants all relying on the internet, any prolonged blackout will cause a complete meltdown of the society as we know it.
These informal 'conversations' Herzog holds with his subjects, how he puts them together side by side for meaningful and sometimes humorous effects, are perhaps the best moments in the film. As Internet pioneer Ted Nelson explains how he got the idea of the web from the flow of water and questions his own sanity in his way of thinking, Herzog exclaims, "You are the sanest person I've ever met!" They laugh and Nelson proceeds to take a snapshot of Herzog and his crew, saying, "What a team!"
Many of his subjects are dumbfounded when he asks, "Does the internet dream of itself?" We see astronomer mega-babe Lucianne Walkowicz, revealing her Chauvet cave animal painting tattoo (Cave of Forgotten Dreams connection anyone?) on her arm, explaining why we should concentrate on conservation of our planet rather than on space exploration. Then Herzog cuts to Elon Musk, CEO of Space X -- a space exploration company, poised to have a human colony on Mars in the near future -- thinking, his eyes furiously searching for words for a good half a minute before he answers about the director's 'the internet dreams itself' riddle.
Herzog finds himself in Las Vegas for Hacker's Convention. There he meets forever elusive hacker legend Greg Mitnik. The buildup to reveal Mitnik is very dramatic, so when the famous hacker is finally revealed -- a middle-aged, schlubby Jewish guy with bad teeth -- you can't help but be amused by it. It's Herzog's unfazed attitude that makes this moment so hilarious. Him being a total neophyte on the subject works to his advantage.
The dark side of the internet -- trolling -- is gracefully summed up in one segment, focusing on one family who suffered the loss of a daughter in a fatal car accident. Within days, someone sent the family the pictures of the crash anonymously, making them available everywhere on the internet. In the guise of anonymity, people can hurt others with impunity.
Thoroughly comprehensive and often humorous meditation on our connected world, Lo and Behold is yet another masterwork by a master chronicler of human experience. It stands alongside Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog's string of great documentaries. And it will go down as one of my favorites of the year. Kudos to NetScout for letting the master filmmaker do what he wanted to do with the project.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World opens in theaters and on demand on August 19.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com