“Lo,” the first message ever sent across the internet. “Lo” as in “Log” without the g, as the computer sending the message crashed before the message could be completed. This is the beautiful irony of the internet that director Werner Herzog tries to capture in his new documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. The inception of the world wide web was at one point a “revolution” that was about to irrevocably change the course of the modern world, and it is at another point an inception that is as archaic-sounding as a recovered fossil.
Video games that map molecules, cars that drive themselves, online class rosters that academically blow Stanford students out of the water. The internet is a mesmerizing world of possibilities that we all take for granted every day. The problem with this premise is that it is not an inherently epiphanic realization. We as internet users know that we take it for granted, but that is part of why the internet is such a utility. It is both a luxury and an asset, without the need for a user to be burdened by all of its possibilities.
This is the major shortcoming of Herzog’s latest output. The director continues on in his usual style, waxing philosophical in winding voiceover monologues in-between the talking head interviews. While it is always amusing to hear his stream of consciousness ramblings, they are less enlightening here than in his other documentaries. Most of the time they feel wanting, reaching for illuminating points of interest that they don’t ever fully reach.
The narrative of Lo and Behold is episodic and choppy. Herzog moves from place to place in seemingly disparate ways. He highlights a team of soccer playing robots, then moves on to a family who have been plagued by photos of their deceased daughter circulating online, and then moves to an astronomical observatory that is trying to combat against our technologically connected world in order to see the stars (not to mention the hermit that squats nearby).
This episodic nature is helpful in encompassing the multitudes of possibilities and perspectives regarding the internet. It is less helpful in crafting a cogent point about the internet beyond the one that is obvious. There are certain episodes that are fascinating in their own right, but the chapters do not meld into a cohesively fascinating whole.
Perhaps the most fascinating of the chapters involve the hypothetical scenarios that could come to pass if the internet shut down. Lawrence Krauss and others discuss the pessimistic fallout in which most, if not all, people would simply die out given the end of digitization. It is a strange thought that puts perhaps too much dependency on internet connectivity, but it is interesting nonetheless.
In regards to conspiracy theories and paranoia, chapters like these are rather timely. In a modern time of whistle-blowers, the internet has become a place of not just opportunity but also fear. Lo and Behold takes its second half to tap into these fears. Again, while this is interesting, it proves that Herzog’s documentary is not shedding light on anything new but merely reiterating what has already been told.
Lo and Behold takes on the light and the dark of the digital world. While it carries the weighty narration of Herzog to the usual Herzogian effect, this is not as compelling a doc as what he has put out before. Herzog is fascinated with the intricacies of the human and natural world, and his subjects are often accordingly fascinating because they are eccentric and illuminating. The internet, in contrast, is not eccentric due to its universal pervasiveness, and it is not illuminating beyond each anecdote’s individual punchline.
Werner Herzog’s documentaries have always fascinated me. With Lo and Behold, I find something far less compelling that what Herzog usually puts forward. This said, it is still enjoyable, and it is still clearly a Herzog film. Just watching the interviews in which he asks these big scientific thinkers if they think the internet dreams of itself proves that fact.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is currently available to rent on Amazon Video here.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)