Editor’s Note: Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is currently playing in limited theatrical release.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World opens the only way a Werner Herzog documentary about the internet could: with a distinguished professor lauding the UCLA computer laboratory where the first internet message was sent in 1969 as a “shrine,” then punching the hell out of the gigantic processor used to send that holy message. It must have been a pleasant moment for Herzog, who has rather famously eschewed the internet, bragging that he only uses a cell phone in emergencies, lamenting in his usual hyperbolic fashion that people left without an internet connection after Hurricane Sandy were “zombies” wandering the streets, unable to even remember how to use a toilet.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is much like the internet itself: flawed, somewhat unnecessary, but occasionally sublime.
It’s no surprise, then, that the director’s contempt occasionally oozes into the film. It’s especially noticeable in his typically overwrought voiceovers, which have lately taken on an air of self-parody. This narration softens as Herzog gradually leads us away from the early days of the internet and into ruminations on mortality and consciousness, on finding life elsewhere in the universe when we can barely manage life on our own planet.
Much is made of our reality today being the science fiction of the past, thus harkening back, albeit tangentially, to the days when William Shatner and Isaac Asimov hawked home computers in advertisements that made you think that a four-color TRS-80 with cassette storage was going to take us to the moon. Those were the days of vi and bang paths, delightful in their way, but their link to modern technology is wholly glossed over in the film. The conceit of chapters within Lo and Behold helps to smooth these rough historical edges, but it’s always jarring when a documentary that moves chronologically is missing chunks of time.
That the internet is inescapable in the modern Western world doesn’t go unnoticed in Lo and Behold, but its necessity is confined to the large and impersonal like power grids and medical equipment, things that would result in suffering (or worse) were they to lose their connection to the internet. In contrast, individuals’ use of the internet is framed as antisocial, needless and harmful, and people are often relegated to the role of helpless monkeys who would be unable to function if the internet ceased to exist, something that we already knew Herzog believed long before the idea for this film was even conceived.
There is beauty in the friction that Werner Herzog exposes, often encourages, between mankind and technology.
That’s why compartmentalizing the societal away from the personal doesn’t feel quite right, not when Lo and Behold relies so heavily on the personal to make its point. There’s a constant reminder that this technology is guaranteed to collapse at least once in a catastrophic outage, and that fact is meant to frighten us into questioning our reliance, but it makes little impact when we’re also told that we’re silly for being glued to our phones all the time.
Lo and Behold hates the internet, can barely show enough interest in it to ask the pertinent questions, and plainly wishes for a world without the internet, consequences be damned. That tension between filmmaker and subject causes unnecessary distractions at times, but it also leads to the kind of expansive, transcendent moments that make cinema worthwhile. There is beauty in the friction that Herzog exposes, often encourages, between mankind and technology. In its way, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is much like the internet itself: flawed, somewhat unnecessary, but occasionally sublime.
Rough around the edges and occasionally condescending, Werner Herzog's Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World examines the internet, mortality and consciousness, and exposes the occasional sublime moment.