'Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World': Sundance Review

A playful peek at the Internet, past and future.

In his new doc premiering at Sundance, Werner Herzog tackles man's relationship to the Internet.

Werner Herzog flicks a quick stone across the surface of the bottomless ocean that is the history and future of the Internet in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, a quizzical, spry, modestly illuminating consideration of where human beings currently stand vis-a-vis the invention that is changing the world in as-yet unimaginable ways. To this end, the ever-curious and prolific filmmaker chats with a few dozen pithy scientists, computer pioneers, hackers, inventors, visionaries and a handful of naysayers to offer the cinematic equivalent of a David Hockney snapshot collage of the communications landscape. Snappy, intermittently amusing and designed for general consumption, this talking heads-dominated feature feels more suited to home screens than to cinemas, where the director's more powerful documentaries, such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams, are viewed to greater advantage.

The subject matter is conducive to taking both a high and low approach. From the Olympian perspective, the project allows Herzog to pose such grandiose questions as to whether the Internet will one day eliminate the need and even desire for human beings to interact with one another, and to speculate about the extent to which it might eventually be capable of deep critical thinking, or dreaming. From the quotidian point of view, the film invites some aging science geeks to recall the early days of Internet connectivity via telephone while also pursuing some odd digressions with Appalachian forest dwellers who are in recovery after overdosing on the Internet, have allegedly contracted radiation poisoning from it or consider it a "manifestation of the Anti-Christ."

There's no question that the subject has provided a fresh stimulant to the ever-adventurous director's abiding inquisitiveness. The vast majority of his interview subjects, most of them very plainly photographed in their workplaces, are brainy guys (and a few women) of a certain age whom Herzog peppers with both straightforward and off-center questions about their expertise and what has arisen from it. The opening sequence documents the Internet's official birthdate, Oct. 29, 1969, when a very brief message was sent from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute, an occasion compared by the filmmaker to Columbus' sighting land 477 years earlier. As then, no one had a clue what lay ahead.

Jarringly, the film then shifts gears to a consideration of "autonomous" cars — "Who is going to be liable if a computer makes a mistake?" Herzog wants to know — and then to the spectacle of small robots playing soccer; their passing and shooting skills are actually quite good. Then comes a lengthy time-out for the visit to the West Virginia mountain folk who value human connectivity over the electronic kind. There's a way in which these folks call to mind the outliers in Fahrenheit 451 who memorize books in a society that has banned them, but Herzog has chosen to focus on damaged souls whose needs seem more medical than political or philosophical.

And so it goes, with Herzog giving a few minutes of screen time apiece to the likes of Ted Nelson, an engaging early '60s Internet seer subsequently considered insane by others in the field; the brilliant and quite pleased with himself Sebastian Thrun, Udacity CEO and former director of Stanford's A.I. Lab; attendees of a spy agencies convention in Vegas; Jennifer Ward, hermit; South Korean marathon gamers who wear diapers to avoid having to go to the bathroom (you can always count on Herzog to unearth some genuine weirdos); notorious hacker Kevin Mitnick, and Elon Musk, who calmly and confidently discusses the necessity of going to other worlds, beginning with Mars, "just in case something goes wrong with Earth."

Which brings the film to "The Future," the last of its 10 chapters. Observing that "all of science fiction missed the most important thing, the Internet," Herzog picks the film's assorted big brains about what lies ahead. Operating on the assumption that we have not yet left the digital dark ages, one seer predicts our imminent arrival at the time when we will be able to tweet thoughts; if so, can true mind reading be far behind? Will thoughts then be able to be read without the need for articulation? Will people still need people? "Who am I to say?" says one modest high-tech soul, suggesting that what lies just beyond the horizon line is truly not yet known.

The subject is vast, its ever-expanding parameters dwarfing the human brain in a way that humbles even the most expansive and forward-minded thinkers. As such, Herzog's quick visit to the front lines represents an appealing, scattershot, easily digestible progress report aimed at a general audience that's now becoming vaguely aware that we're all living at the beginning of some kind of new world that could be brave or extraordinarily homogeneous. Or both.

Production companies: Netscan, Saville Productions
Director: Werner Herzog
Producers: Rupert Maconick, Werner Herzog
Executive producers: Jim McNiel, David Moore, Dave Arnold, Tennille Teague
Director of photography: Peter Zeitlinger
Editor: Marco Capaldo
Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

No rating, 98 minutes