Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
Directed by Werner Herzog
Opens August 19
Mere seconds into his new meditation on information technology, the transporting yet still minor Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, the great Werner Herzog makes one of his patented narratorial overstatements, intoning that the UCLA corridors where the internet was founded decades ago look “repulsive.” By the end of the film, the internet history lesson having long since given way to a polyphony of future predictions, the Stanford AI authority Sebastian Thrun has told the filmmaker that robots will one day make movies—though perhaps not ones as good as his. (“Of course not,” the relative Luddite Herzog confidently affirms.) And another scientist has speculated on the fate of imaginative and critical thinking in a world where machines have the capability of catering to our every whim. These days, Herzog’s insistence on playing up his popular persona might be wearing a little thin, but in Lo and Behold the tactic often proves fitting enough: Who better than a proudly idiosyncratic and restlessly sage human to ponder the sort of user experience that—for better or worse—the internet has enabled our lives to become?
Organized into 10 Roman-numeral’d chapters, “The Early Days” to “The Future,” the hour-and-a-half Lo and Behold speeds past any number of wired-world topics, from the ethics of self-driving cars to the psychological damage inflicted by anonymous trolls. Here, the talking heads occupy the majority of the screen time, with Herzog hyperlinking among a wide array of personalities and areas of expertise. As a late-career work of nonfiction, the movie doesn’t come anywhere close to The White Diamond, with its laid-back lyricism and spectacular scenery, or Into the Abyss, with its single-issue concentration and relative sobriety, but several of the new movie’s real-life characters are quite memorable nonetheless. Kevin Mitnick, a onetime most-wanted criminal now settled deep into middle age, tells a couple yarns from his good old days of hacking; the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, a charismatic presence behind a great pair of bifocals, discusses the threat that solar flares pose to our interconnected grid; and the philosopher Ted Nelson, a man who lives what appears to be a lonely existence on a houseboat, explains his early-days vision for links that never caught on. When Herzog asks a roboticist if he loves the soccer-playing model he’s showing off to the camera, the professor beams and simply responds, “Yes.”
When Lo and Behold ventures outside the academy, though, the results are a little less predictable. A woman who says she suffers from a sort of super-sensitivity to communications technology—she’s sought refuge in the shadow of an Appalachian radio telescope, a place without wireless or cell signals—seems to grow defensive at Herzog’s question about whether she considers herself a “refugee” from modern society. A recovering gaming addict declines to discuss the ins and outs of online role playing (the director is forced to speculate to himself about “malevolent druid dwarves”). Herzog also seems to displease Elon Musk by volunteering, perhaps a little too eagerly, for the entrepreneur’s mission to Mars. These brief crossed-wires moments seem especially intimate among all the talk of cyberwarfare and machine learning, but they also deepen the sense that the filmmaker has taken on too much to spend time earning the trust of each individual subject. Herzog could’ve spun a dozen whole features from the far-flung material he cobbles together here. It’s a testament to his skill, at least, that you wish he’d made every one of them.