When word came from Sundance that Werner Herzog had made a documentary about the internet, it sounded like an appropriately Herzogian joke. Herzog's documentaries tend to enthusiastically explore how human consciousness is anything but rational, how it comes saddled with obsessions and impulses and strange imperfections and unbridgeable psychic isolation—and really, where better to look for all of that than the internet? Go to the online comments section of any news story about Black Lives Matter, and you'll get a deeper glimpse into the abyss than anything in Grizzly Man (2005). In truth, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is only partly about internet communication, and dwells on its dark side only briefly. The film is more about the explosion of information technology writ on a cosmic scale: it is one of Herzog's most far-ranging documentaries—and one of his best in recent years—with its eye on both the little details and something grand.
Herzog's documentaries sometimes turn the camera on otherworldly landscapes that seem too impossible to exist. In Fata Morgana (1971), one of his earliest documentaries, he paired images of the Saharan wilderness with voice-over reading aloud the Mayan creation myth, until his footage of a desolate, primordial land started to look like the formation of the Earth. In his remarkable Lessons of Darkness (1992), he filmed the burning oil fields of Kuwait after the Gulf War as a real-life apocalypse. Even more often, his documentaries zero in on an example of the human experience at its most extreme: a community of the deaf-blind, inmates on death row, child soldiers in Latin America, the outlandish story of a POW in Vietnam, and (for something lighter) eccentric researchers who've made a new home for themselves on the frontiers of Antarctica.
The thread connecting these documentaries is a peculiar, subjective, and only quasi-journalistic gaze. The goal is less to inform than to inspire, to get us to look at the world we live in as if it is a work of art, a tall tale, or something out of science fiction. And indeed, Lo and Behold takes pleasure in noting that most actual science fiction of the late 1960s, where its timeline of internet history begins, failed to predict the internet entirely, thinking instead that we'd have flying cars and be fighting the Soviets on the moon. In Lo and Behold, Herzog is still drawn to the extremes, like a commune of people who get sick from cellular waves, or a family whose daughter's death turned into a viral nightmare. The difference is that, where films like Fata Morgana, or Grizzly Man, or his Antarctic journey Encounters at the End of the World (2007) focused on topics that are remote or exotic to the audience, most of whom will almost certainly never experience their subjects up close, the extremes of Lo and Behold form the endpoints of a net that seems to catch the entire globe inside it.
The film is structured in ten discrete chapters, focusing on a range of topics: astonishing advances in robotics; internet addiction as a mental illness; a group of grad students who crowd-sourced a way to fight cancer; a community of Luddites fleeing from technology; the new battlefield of cyber-warfare; the chance that a solar flare could throw an internet-dependent world into a dark age; and the rise of SpaceX with the goal of sending a man to Mars, featuring an interview with Elon Musk himself. It's certainly a diverse array, sometimes threatening to lose focus or depth. But Herzog keeps it moving at a swift, amiable pace, and it remains united by his sly wit and an affection for his subjects. I won't spoil where the film's title comes from, suffice it to say that he's very much up to his old trick of spotting irony and poetic meaning in the seemingly random quirks of the universe. He also chooses his images wisely, like a group of cattle in a field while a SpaceX rocket launches in the background, or the way the camera pans from one of Pittsburgh's dilapidated industrial ruins to a state-of-the-art robotics facility at Carnegie Mellon.
In the years since Grizzly Man, Herzog's documentary persona has become iconic, thanks in no small part to the internet itself, where his Bavarian accent and gloomy deadpan commentary have inspired numerous memes and parodies. Herzog himself embraces his comic potential, and there is a certain happy-to-be-dark jokiness at work in Lo and Behold. When he asks, "Have the monks stopped meditating? They all seem to be Tweeting", he knows he's a showman playing to a crowd.
But he is also, at his best, as much a spectator as the audience. Lo and Behold retains his fond sense that eccentricity is the purest form of human expression, and one of the joys of the film becomes how he lets the camera linger on some of his interviewees, so that they become not simply dispensers of information, but subjects unto themselves. As engineers, roboticists, grad students, and experts present their latest work, he repeatedly catches a particular type of smile: part shy, part proud, part bashful about how much this new technology excites them, but far too excited to hide it. (Not to mention the scholar who, in presenting Herzog with the world's first piece of internet equipment, feels compelled to smell it and report on the aroma). It's no secret that Herzog's documentaries and his fiction films tend to overlap more than they differ, and in Herzog's filmography, their smiles compare to nothing as much as Klaus Kinski at the end of Fitzcarraldo (1982), enraptured as he brings a slice of civilization to the jungle.
And it is this sense of wonder that holds the film's disparate strands together in a singular statement. Lo and Behold is nearly as cosmic as Fata Morgana and, as it sketches potential doomsday scenarios, at least halfway as apocalyptic as Lessons of Darkness. But Herzog, age 73 at the film's premiere and by all accounts not much of a techie himself, imposes no nostalgic judgement on a future where the human brain could be wired directly to Twitter. On the contrary, he seems fascinated. When Elon Musk says that the first manned mission to Mars would probably be a one-way ticket, Herzog gamely volunteers, and it comes across as part bluff, part joke, and part reflex reaction. Lo and Behold makes sure to inextricably tie such utopian goals to darker, more deadly possible outcomes. But the paradox is that the film is strangely inspiring even in its more alarming moments. It's about nothing less than the idea that, whatever we end up with, and whatever remains constant in human nature, civilization as we know it will be virtually unrecognizable a few generations from now. It will happen whether we like it or not. And it will be beyond the wildest dreams of any filmmaker. That's the film's reverie—and, for those on Herzog's wavelength, ours too.