Review: ‘Lo and Behold,’ Werner Herzog terrifies us about the future

Werner Herzog returns with a probing new documentary, "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World."
(Magnolia Pictures)

It’s entirely possible Werner Herzog could find philosophical wonders and dilemmas making a documentary about your shoe collection, but until then we’ll have to settle for this prolific filmmaker’s abiding interest in the vastness of humankind’s dreams, desires and actions. His latest nonfiction foray is about no less than what’s changed life as we know it these last few decades: that coursing, unseen river called the Internet. And though the German auteur claims to be a technophobe, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” is just the kind of percolating, wry probe we need into this fast-moving, digitally monopolizing age.

Herzog (“Grizzly Man,” “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”), a natural alarmist at the same time he thrives on humanity’s boldness and invention, isn’t the type of explorer who starts with a pre-arranged idea. What animates “Lo and Behold” is his questioning spirit regarding the Web’s journey from host-to-host communications tool devised in a UCLA lab in 1969 to the scarily inter-reliant nervous system of today.

But with Herzog’s initially chronological approach, there’s plenty of humor in the recollections of gray-haired pioneers like Leonard Kleinrock, who mentions how the first machine-to-machine message from the refrigerator-sized computer at UCLA resulted in — what else? — a crash. (He also likens that moment to the spotting of land from a certain ship in 1492.) Internet protocol co-inventor Bob Kahn gets a kick out of wielding a slim volume that once held the name of everyone connected to what was then called ARPAnet.

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Herzog whets our whistle with the dazzling work of scientists, including those who learned to harness the collective smarts of worldwide users to solve problems, and robotics nerds who pine for a day when soccer-playing droids can beat the world’s human best. But the gloomy provocateur we know and admire gets to the grim/weird side of mass connectivity pretty quickly.

He spotlights a family mercilessly trolled after the gruesome death of their daughter, talks to those who suffer from disturbing levels of online addiction (“Eventually it’ll get in the way of everything real,” one rehabbing gamer says), and visits an off-the-grid West Virginia community of people who claim debilitating sensitivity to the electromagnetic fields from ubiquitous cellphone towers. From these stories of the damaged and victimized, Herzog suggests the chilling notion that using the Internet is no longer an active choice for us — we live in an opt-out world only. Building up a tolerance is a necessity.

Things turn apocalyptic when the subject shifts to a world dependent on being plugged in, and the disruptive world of hacking. We learn of massive sun flares that have the potential to create mass outages on Earth — “the undoing of modern civilization” is a phrase to which Herzog was born to give fiendishly seductive intonation.

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But if solar obliteration sounds fantastical, newscast footage of Hurricane Sandy’s electricity-deprived aftermath — a situation more likely to proliferate in an environmentally stressed future — suddenly feels more terrifying in Herzog’s world of watch-out. It’s not a far cry then, to the likes of Elon Musk — another of Herzog’s talkers (he doesn’t call what he conducts “interviews” but instead “conversations”) — straight-facedly planning shuttles to other planets. Does Musk know something about what’s going to happen to Earth that we don’t?

By the time Herzog inquires of a handful of his bigger-brained subjects whether the Internet could dream of itself, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” has laid enough wonderfully curious, terrifyingly speculative groundwork about the path on which we’re headed, to get us to lean in further. We may still be in the digital dark ages, according to one expert. Whether that fills you with awe or dread is exactly what Herzog wants you to think about.


‘Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World’

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13, for brief strong language and some thematic elements

Playing: Landmark NuArt, West Los Angeles