One common criticism of the internet is that it’s destroying the minds of young people. With so many different forms of entertainment always available, the argument goes, youth will constantly multitask and never develop the ability to focus on a specific topic. Whether or not attention spans are decreasing, that meandering lack of focus is what prevents Werner Herzog’s documentary, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, from reaching its full potential.
The film begins in a featureless building on the campus of UCLA. “This is a holy place,” says Leonard Kleinrock, one of the pioneers of the internet, as he leads the camera into a room where the first internet messages were sent. It’s a sentiment that Herzog clearly agrees with. Server rooms are filmed in long, smooth takes, with uniform rows of servers bringing to mind the pews of a church, and robots are given enough time on screen to allow the audience to discover subtle beauty in their motions.
While Herzog’s sense of awe towards the internet makes for elegant visuals, it also causes the film to never linger too long on one subject. Lo and Behold is split into parts, with little apparent ordering. For example, a segment about the potential for and consequences of a global shutdown of the internet is part five out of ten. Some of these segments are de rigeur for discussions of the internet, such as the obligatory segment about internet security and identity theft, while others are pleasantly surprising, such as a segment where Herzog asks many of the people he interviews whether the internet can dream.
It’s also a nice surprise when Herzog doesn’t discard his interview subjects when they’ve given him a sound bite on packet switches, robots, or self-driving cars. He’s seemingly as interested in who they are as what they have to say, as when the camera lingers on the face of a scientist who admits that he loves his robot, or when it shows us Elon Musk talking about his dreams. This approach, however, is often frustrating, since so much is covered over the course of the film that we only see glimpses of the different subjects.
Even though Herzog paints with a wide brush, there’s also much that’s left out. It’s baffling that he spends so much time with self-driving cars and soccer-playing robots, which have little connectivity, in a film about the internet. He and his subjects spend so much time talking about whether the internet connects us or divides us that they don’t have any time to talk about the ways in which it does that. When the mother of a girl whose dead body was photographed and passed around on the internet says, “I have always believed that the internet is a manifestation of the Antichrist,” Herzog lingers on her face, as if to ask us to consider her words. Unfortunately, he has so many topics to cover that the film never delves deeper.
Ultimately, Lo and Behold is beautifully shot, but covers too many topics to really address any of them. Much of what it actually digs into, the audience likely already knows. The film would have been better as a series of trailers for distinct documentaries, since there’s the sense that Herzog has so much more to show us. While it can be irritating for a film to overstay its welcome by padding its runtime or throwing too much information at the audience, Lo and Behold ultimately leaves the viewer feeling unfulfilled and a bit disappointed.