About two-thirds of the way into Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog poses a question to computer experts, chin-stroking philosophers and you, the audience: “Does the Internet dream of itself?” As far as onscreen queries posed by the legendary German filmmaker, this one doesn’t hit the delirious heights of “Is there such [a] thing as insanity among penguins?” from 2007’s Encounters at the End of the World. But delivered in his stern, oft-imitated Teutonic tone, this inquiry is enough to cause the simultaneous giddy grinning and cerebral hemorrhages that Herzog’s deep-thought interrogations often inspire — not so much headscratchers as brain-exploders.
And on paper, the premise suggests a perfect storm of such moments: an exploration of how the vast, ever-morphing online realm has reflected our best/worst tendencies and affected our species. Talking heads attest to the early days of modem-based networks, worst-case shut-down scenarios involving solar flares, and how gamers helped disease researchers solve helix-based puzzles. We visit Internet-addiction rehab centers, hacker conventions, and Elon Musk’s sleek office. The Existential Pondering-ometer goes into the red zone. There will be robots.
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Herzog in prime, purple-prose mode (that title!) and what the World Wild Web says about humanity’s (d)evolution — this should be a surefire combination, and the fact that it provides plenty of food for thought without necessarily giving you a full meal is a bit of a letdown. Presented more like a series of magazine TV show vignettes rather than a comprehensive whole, the documentary pings from topic to topic, announcing each segment’s intent via chapter titles (“IV: The End of the Net”). Mileage varies, however, on each semi-deep dive into the good, the bad and the ugly of online culture. Some episodes barely scratch the surface of their creator’s musings; others, like a visit to the Catsouras family, who were emailed photos of their daughter Nikki’s horrific death scene, play out like perfectly encapsulated short films. “Some of the hate mail was so unspeakably horrifying that we can not repeat it here,” Herzog intones, echoing his infamous “Never watch this footage” plea from Grizzly Man (2005). The scene he composes of Nikki’s parents and sisters sitting silently around a dining room table, platters of muffins and pastries in the foreground, is both eerily banal and breathtaking.
It’s sequences like that one that channel vintage Herzog vérité at its best, the sort of “ecstatic truth” bombs that have made his nonfiction works such essential viewing. Yet the mosaic-style format, while a necessity — how else to tackle such a multifaceted topic? — doesn’t bring out his strengths; a colleague pointed out that the director seems to be making an Errol Morris movie instead of one of his own, and this does feel like an attempt to fashion something along the lines of FastCheap&OutOfControl.org. You still get the occasional batshit proclamation, the bliss of hearing him say lines like “the corridors here look re-pul-sive, yet there this one leads to some sort of shrine,” and the voyeuristic thrill of listening to brilliant people muse over life, the universe and everything. You just don’t get a Big Picture — only many tiny ones, all adding up to blurry, lo-res rendering of The Way We Live Online Now.