Forget CGI. The greatest special effect in movies today is the sound of Werner Herzog’s voice. Those chilly Teutonic tones somehow manage to convey amazement, dread, avidity, detachment, superiority, and creepiness rolled into one.
All those qualities come into play in “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World.” The documentary’s subject is the Internet. Luddite that he is, Herzog recoils from the digital world. Yet connoisseur of wonders that he is, he marvels at it, too. Out of those conflicting responses, he’s fashioned a film that’s emotionally compelling and intellectually incoherent. It’s like a collection of short stories — most dystopian, some not — trying to pass itself off as a novel.
Herzog is that rare filmmaker equally at ease with nonfiction and fiction. Previous documentary subjects have ranged from a US pilot downed during the Vietnam War (“Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” 1997) to Antarctica (“Encounters at the End of the World,” 2007 ) to the earliest known paintings (“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” 2007).
His most memorable documentary is “Grizzly Man” (2005), about a naturalist whose efforts to study bears go too far. A man loses his identity — and life — in trying to become one with nature. In “Lo and Behold,” Herzog wonders if our culture is doing the reverse, losing its connection to nature as it creates a cyber-identity.
Obviously, this is a large and daunting subject. What’s the German word for “daunt”? It appears never to have entered Herzog’s vocabulary. If he were any more fearless he could be the subject for one of his own documentaries. Largeness is a challenge he can’t elude, though. It means he has to come at his subject from lots of different angles. He’s like the proverbial blind man trying to describe an elephant.
So Herzog goes to the University of California Los Angeles, site of the first message sent via ARPANET (forerunner of the Internet). He visits a hacker convention in Las Vegas and a completely connectionless community in West Virginia. One guess which one Herzog prefers — and which is more interesting. The answers differ.
We see Buddhist monks staring at the screens of their smartphones, learn about autonomous cars, and pay several visits to Carnegie Mellon University to hear about artificial intelligence. Herzog goes to a rehab center for Internet addiction, wonders about solar flares short-circuiting everything electronic on Earth (does one detect a touch of yearning in his voice-over?), and talks to the family of a young woman whose death in an auto accident led to trolls posting gruesome photographs of the crash. “I have always believed that the Internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist,” her mother tells Herzog.
Among the experts heard from is Jonathan Zittrain, who teaches Internet law at Harvard. “The Web is the Internet dreaming of itself,” he tells Herzog. That statement chimes with one from the technology visionary Elon Musk, whom we hear from several times. “I don’t seem to remember the good dreams,” he tells Herzog. “The ones that I remember are the nightmares.” He also describes his efforts to send humans to Mars. It would have to be a one-way trip, Musk notes. Herzog says he’d go anyway. He’s that sort of guy, and this is that sort of movie.
★ ★ ★
LO AND BEHOLD: REVERIES OF THE CONNECTED WORLD
Written and directed by Werner Herzog. At Kendall Square. 98 minutes. Rated PG-13 (brief strong language and some thematic elements).