Suggesting that modern cinema’s most prescient work may yet turn out to be “The Terminator,” Werner Herzog’s “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” takes a simultaneously curious, awe-struck, and terrified look at the origins and future of the web and the interconnected reality it’s begat. Structured into chapters, and largely devoid of the adventurous, mesmerizing nature cinematography that characterizes so much of his non-fiction work, Herzog’s latest proves a masterful inquiry into technological evolution. To the director, that development has spawned innovation that few science fiction writers ever dreamed of — as one speaker correctly opines, fictional visions of the future almost never involved the Internet — and yet it’s also created a today, and a potential tomorrow, fraught with harrowing emotional, social, moral, and philosophical dilemmas apt to give a rational person (or a genius like Elon Musk) ceaseless nightmares.
The documentary's inquiry begins at the University of California, home of the clunky old military-grade machine that birthed the internet — a momentous location where, Herzog hilariously notes, “the corridors here look repulsive.” The filmmaker’s penchant for stating grandiose ideas and opinions via his German-accented narration is in full effect throughout, and his documentary’s greatest levity manifests itself in his wry asides to speakers, as when he asks Stanford University robotician/educator Sebastian Thrun — famous for his pioneering work on autonomous cars — if robots will ever make movies. When Thrun predicts that they will, but that they won’t be as good as Herzog’s, the filmmaker retorts, “of course not.”
That’s likely true, and yet the dawning dread that infests 'Lo and Behold' comes from the underlying notion that robots’ interest in trumping Herzog’s cinematic oeuvre will be non-existent — that, in fact, we’re fast heading toward a future where conventional ideas about human interaction, artificial intelligence, and the ethics which guide those facets of life (and ourselves) will be radically altered by developments we can’t begin to fathom. With methodical precision, it focuses on the many ways in which the web, and our devices, are already reconfiguring our ideas of right and wrong, and of what it means to experience the world in 2016. In conversations with everyday individuals, with early computer-to-computer pioneers, with astronomers, scientists and academics, and with criminals like Kevin Mitnick, dubbed “the world’s most famous hacker,” Herzog captures a sprawling sense of how individuals, and cultures, are being warped by our internet-rooted existence.
Whereas hopefulness springs forth from Thrun’s anecdote about a class he taught whose best students were those taking it online — indicating the internet’s potential to discover and nurture great minds that’d otherwise be denied an elite education — Mitnick’s amusing tales of stealing Motorola’s bedrock source code through shrewd telephone chicanery illustrates the fragility of a security-obsessed online environment still vulnerable thanks to its human elements. Moreover, Mitnick’s amorality is a burgeoning threat to mankind according to 'Lo and Behold,' which, as in a vignette about a family besieged by hateful emails featuring pictures of their deceased daughter’s decapitated body, posits our online lives as increasingly detached from basic, traditional principles of decency.
Herzog digs deeply into the potential ramifications of pinning our futures on technology, and unearths a series of scary, and far-from-unthinkable, possibilities. There are the driverless cars that can be taught to avoid hitting objects but have no — and feel no — inherent responsibility for prioritizing humans over inanimate objects. There are the internet addicts in a rehab facility who are obsessed with games full of what Herzog dubs “the malevolent droid dwarf or whoever.” There are the people so sensitive to cellular emissions that they now live in a West Virginia research area (where a telescope is used for radio astronomy) free of such transmissions. And there are the seemingly inevitable giant solar flares capable of disrupting the globe’s electric infrastructure, to catastrophic results. 'Lo and Behold' exudes skin-crawling unease about the path upon which the world is headed, even as it embraces the numerous positive aspects of our digitally enhanced present. Both in his narration and in his questions to various subjects, Herzog’s profound inquisitiveness comes across as natural, sincere, and infectious, despite the fact that the implications of his queries, and the answers he receives, are far from reassuring.
In its closing passages, the issue of humanity’s actual role in its own future is raised, and Arizona State cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’ honest reply — that we can’t know what’s to come, but that maybe it will involve no direct human-to-human interaction…and maybe that’ll be an acceptable paradigm — is as chilling as are prior sights of a monkey robot (decked out in Amazon, Shell, and Honeywell advertisements) teaching itself how to move, think, and predict. As Herzog ponders whether the internet dreams, and talks with Carnegie Melon scientists about their work on “the universalities of the alphabet of human thought” and telepathic communication that’ll allow us to “tweet thoughts,” 'Lo and Behold' devolves into an outright horror film about civilization, and what we’re allowing it to become: a place of infinite information and borderline-magical wonders, and yet one that sees no use for the very element that Herzog twice mentions, as if in fear that it’ll be a mere afterthought in our new techno-world order — love. [A-]