On Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast, a major running joke is that director Werner Herzog (played by comedian Paul F. Tompkins) hates nature. He fears it, and often proclaims that it will destroy us. This, of course, is playing off Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man and the occasionally bleak declarations that accompany many of his films. But it’s particularly funny to hear after seeing Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, because now the real Herzog is wondering if technology, not nature, will be our ruiner after all.
Lo and Behold is a relatively broad dissection of all things online, Herzog’s attempt to link the past, present, and future of the Internet in one sprawling, wonderfully entertaining package. The documentary is divided into ten parts, each functioning as its own mini-movie of sorts. One delves into the family of a car accident victim whose grisly demise is uploaded and shared around the globe; another ponders whether a massive solar flare will burn out our electronic systems and doom our civilization.
Mostly, he muses about the aspects of our connected world that he finds most intriguing. He asks scientists if the Internet dreams of itself; he volunteers for one of Elon Musk’s potential trips to Mars; he wonders if we’ll evolve into a world where human interaction is a bonus, not a necessity, and if that’ll really be such a bad thing once we’re there.
There’s also talk of artificial intelligence, of self-driving cars and cyberwars that could be going on as we speak. At times, it feels like Herzog bites off more than he can chew. The Internet as a whole is a vast, almost indecipherable topic; to pin it down in 98 minutes is madness.
But his documentaries, especially the ones with his memorable voice as our guide, are like a window into his mind. And this movie, in particular, came to be as a collaboration with network performance management company NetScout; it was meant to be a series of shorts on the fragility of connectivity. Herzog, of course, took advantage of some cinematic freedoms and crafted a feature-length film. You wish he had more time, but you can see how the structure—and Herzog’s wiring—force a bounce from one idea to the next.
At this point in our technological evolution, it’s imperative that people like Herzog ask questions. From billionaire inventors to a kid with an iPhone, we’re all tethered to the Internet and the ways it makes our lives easier. It takes an unplugged, endlessly curious storyteller to see the cracks we may have stepped over, or at least provide some much-needed insight as we hurtle towards an inevitable future and cross our fingers that it all works out.
Yet, as stated in his brilliant conversation with Marc Maron on WTF, Herzog isn’t afraid that we’ll all become complacent and removed from humanity. He doesn’t fear that we’ll lose the ability to love or forget the value of togetherness. What he shares with his Paul F. Tompkins-fueled counterpart is a belief in inevitability; in his impression, Tompkins emphasizes that nature will win because it is forever and we are temporary. And the real Herzog feels that our humanity is innate and unextinguishable; no matter where technology takes us, it will find a way to emerge because it is necessary.
It’s a nice sentiment, this acceptance of powers larger than ourselves. And it certainly adds a depth to Lo and Behold, making this ambitious documentary one of the best films of 2016.