Friday 6 January 2017

Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Werner Herzog is a legend of cinema. Despite a huge number of fiction feature films under his belt, he’s largely known for his documentaries – especially in recent years. His films often tell rather dark tales, with Into The Abyss and Grizzly Man up there with his best. Truly fascinating stories, told with Herzog’s iconic voice – a voice that has achieved meme-like status, even having cameo appearances on Rick & Morty and Family Guy! But despite often telling human-centric stories, Herzog puts his focus on something a little more technological here. 

Lo & Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is an utterly mesmerising - if a little heavy -exploration of the internet and the technology around it that is showing no signs of slowing down progression. We begin our adventure on the campus of the University of California, as the charmingly eccentric computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock shows us the first piece of kit that made the internet possible – a machine ‘so ugly, it’s beautiful’. This place, we learn, is where the internet began only 48 years ago. Since then, we’ve made so much progress it’s scary. 

Lo & Behold provides the viewer with some stunning data – for example, if all the data transmitted online for one day was burned on to CDs, the pile of discs would stretch to Mars and back. And if a directory of people on the internet – like the thin book that existed when the internet was in its early stages – was to be published, it would be 72 miles thick. 72 miles!!! We watch in awe as the power of the internet is spelled out to us, and the developments it has aided in AI, science and health are truly stunning. A young man in Brazil named Joydeep Biswas, for example, is developing robot football players that he hopes, by 2050, will be skilled enough to beat a human team. And judging by initial creation that we see, it isn’t as farfetched as you might expect. But of course, the internet isn’t all good.

Anybody who has ever used the internet knows there is a dark side. On a simple level, it’s the trolls. But on a darker level, it’s morbid fascination paired with a feeling of anonymity. During Lo & Behold, we meet the quiet Catsouras family – understandably sombre, we learn. In 2006, daughter Nikki was involved in a horrifying car accident which left her almost unidentifiable. California Highway Patrol, as per protocol, had to take photos of the grisly scene…which were promptly leaked onto the internet, and disgustingly shared with the family alongside hideous jokes. This was only possible because of the internet, a tool Nikki’s mother describes as becoming the embodiment of Satan. It is an extremely moving sequence, respectfully delivered – Herzog states that, out of respect, he won’t show any photos of Nikki whatsoever, as he doesn’t want to inspire “sick curiosity” for the viewer to seek out the troublingly accessible images. Instead, he opts to show her empty room in the Catsouras house, and the chair at the dining table she left behind. This is a difficult scene to watch, made all the more powerful by Nikki’s father’s tears.

Broken up into 10 chapters, Lo & Behold is expansive and ambitious. Due to a relatively short runtime of 90 minutes, a lack of in-depth explanation means this is not a particularly accessible film for the uninitiated. We meet countless boffins and socially-awkward outcasts who blabber occasionally incoherent mumbo jumbo about science and technology, but their passion shines even when their words seem meaningless. Some are clearly uncomfortable, such as billionaire developer Elon Musk, but others are so quirkily eccentric and excitable – the outspoken Ted Nelson, for example - that they seem like real-life Wallaces from Aardman’s iconic creation. A telling sequence shows Nelson overwhelmed with joy when Werner Herzog tells him he isn’t insane. It’s surprisingly touching.

As well as innovative technology development – colonising Mars, driverless cars – we also meet hacker legend Kevin Mitnick who proudly speaks of outsmarting the FBI through hacking. But again, just as we begin to get excited about this incredible internet world (with its 3 billion-strong population), the dark side of technology is thrown at us. We learn about a South Korean couple who were so addicted to the web they played video games as their child starved to death – and in an almost darkly ironic twist, we learn the game they were addicted to was based around nurturing and raising a child. Then there’s a man who had a leg amputated because he sat too long while online, addicted to the technological world he could explore from his chair. But then, we’re right back into looking at rescue robots and internet-aided health research. Herzog’s narration is as charming as ever, but be prepared for him to jump all over the place with little explanation – his tangents include hurricanes, sun flares and religion. But hey, it’s Werner. He can do as he pleases.

It’s hard to summarise Lo & Behold with a genre or any sort of angle. It is joyous and positive about some aspects of development and where the world is headed, but then sombre and disgusted at other areas. It is both a comedy, and a horror story. It is the beginning, and the end. Either way, it’s an utterly engrossing and thought-provoking watch – unsurprising, considering the man behind it. Long may Werner Herzog educate, shock and thrill us…and make us laugh at the same time. The internet began 48 years ago, and look how far we’ve come. Where will we be in another 50 years? Time will tell.

Lo & Behold is a scary ride through the modern tech world, and a thrilling indication that we’re just getting started. 4/5


Sam Love

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