By James Hancock August 24th, 2016
The fact that Werner Herzog is still going strong at age 75 should be a cause for celebration for movie lovers all around the world. For the last half century he has produced one of the most distinctive bodies of work of any filmmaker who has ever lived and I count many of his movies among the best I have ever seen. So it came as a huge surprise to me yesterday when I learned that Werner Herzog had not only made a new documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World but also that it had already been released a few days beforehand. Given that the film is about the internet and our interconnected world, the irony was not lost on me that this movie was not on my radar in spite of my spending far too much time online for the sole purpose of talking about and gathering information about movies. Well now I’m up to speed on Herzog’s latest and I’m pleased to report that I absolutely loved it, so much so that I’m currently watching it for a second time as I write this review. This film is not likely to force any Herzog fan to rearrange their top 5 Herzog list or even their top 10 for that matter (he has 68 credits as director), but I think this documentary is essential viewing. At a time where our technology continues to evolve at an exponential rate affecting us in ways we can’t hope to fully comprehend, Herzog’s film forces us to assess this period of disruptive change and come to terms with its best and most dire consequences.
Herzog may not appear physically in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World but his voice and presence is felt in every frame of film as he conducts a series of interviews covering the birth of the internet, artificial intelligence, hacker culture, gaming addiction and the colonization of Mars. The film is relatively short with a runtime of 98 minutes but Herzog manages to pack an astonishing amount of information and contrasting perspectives into this lean feature film. Many sequences are incredibly inspiring. Sebastian Thrun, a roboticist and educator, discusses a class he taught at Stanford University where he had a classroom of 200 Stanford students as well as 160,000 additional students enrolled online. At the end of the semester, the top 412 students were not even enrolled at Stanford. This is a staggering shift in the status quo of our education system that would have been inconceivable without our newly interconnected world. But for every positive story in the film such as the evolution of the artificial intelligence in our automobiles, there is a equal and opposite story that will chill your blood. On the micro side of things, these dark tales include scenarios where addiction to video games has led to loss of limbs or even one’s own children due to spending too much time in virtual worlds. But on the macro level, even more alarming are the conversations about how random natural events such as sunspots and solar flares or manmade disasters caused by hackers could easily disrupt the fragile ecosystem of the internet. As a society, we are only a few missing meals away from an age of barbarism at all times, a scenario that would become frighteningly real alarmingly quickly if we were to lose the internet even for a short period of time.
In spite of some of the nightmare scenarios explored in the film, overall the movie left me feeling hopeful and inspired. With so much of our online interaction these days consisting of little more than recreational outrage or wallowing in mind numbingly stupid content, there is something incredibly refreshing about listening to brilliant individuals discuss their ideas for 90 straight minutes. One of my favorite moments is when Herzog sits down with entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is using his vast resources for the exploration of space, and puts him on the spot by volunteering to be the first person sent to Mars. Musk squirms a bit uncomfortably before moving onto another topic. Musk’s aspirations for the human race continue to impress me and it would not surprise at all if in the years to come he were to come to be known as one of the most important technological entrepreneurs of the 21st century. But as a film lover, even more impressive to me is Herzog himself. It is incredible to me that after a half century of filmmaking adventures that would kill most normal individuals, Werner Herzog appears more curious and engaged than ever before. He is the last of the great maverick directors who is willing to hurl himself into a live volcano or fly through a burning oil well for the sake of capturing a few interesting seconds through the lens of his camera. It is a privilege to be a fan of movies at a time where he has remained so incredible productive. When his life finally draws to a close, I hope we’ll find a way to send his entire filmography into space. If his films were to find their way into the hands of alien life, I can think of no better way for the human race to make their proper introduction.