Review: 'Lo and Behold'

Werner Herzog takes on the internet in his latest documentary
Buddhist monks on cell phones in a scene from the new documentary, 'Lo and Behold.'

Technologies shape us before we even halfway sense their presence. Werner Herzog examines the internet itself in Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, a documentary in 10 chapters, with commentary by local engineers such as Elon Musk and Stanford's Sebastian Thrun.

The foreboding words, "What hath God wrought?" were the first ever transmitted via telegraph; the first message delivered over the nascent internet was a single word: "Lo." It sounds Biblical. But this message, sent between labs at UCLA and Stanford, was little more than a glitch. The message supposed to read, "Log In." But the system crashed just two characters in.

Our genial German director-flaneur comments on what he sees—in a famous voice that is as even-tempered under pressure as a Western movie sheriff. It's a calm under which compassion is barely audible yet easy to sense.

Herzog visits the site of this historic transmission, which occurred Oct. 29, 1969 at 10:30pm. Observing the non-descript UCLA hallway, Herzog mutters, "The corridor here looks horrible." He's welcomed to the historic site, a small office still containing the metal monolith that dispatched the single, significant syllable. The computer is about 5 feet tall, a piece of military hardware. Scientist Leonard Kleinrock, present on that fateful day, opens up the machine to give Herzog a whiff of vintage computer guts.

The early cyber-pioneer Ted Nelson had hoped the internet would be like a body of water—free flowing and open to all; he calls the current tangle of snakes and ladders, money and piracy, "a crime against humanity."

Conversely, Carnegie Mellon professor Adrien Treuille demonstrates a pretty game of dancing lights and musical tones, which he hopes will help scientists design folding molecules and win the war against against disease; and Thrun's open-source education platform, Udacity, reaches 160,000 virtual students with its "massive open online courses."

But no one comes into a Herzog documentary looking for optimism. He visits the victims of a spectacularly vicious internet hazing: the Catsouras family of Southern California, deluged with emails filled with hacked photos—originally taken by police at the scene of their daughter Nikki's fatal car crash—carrying captions such as "Woo hoo, Daddy! I'm still alive."

"Woo-hoo," Herzog repeats, incredulous. Just as he decides not to include the Timothy Treadwell death tape in Grizzly Man, the director does without a photo of Nikki as she was in life, in favor of a shot of a room where the girl's piano still sits.

In a West Virginia valley where cell phone transmissions are banned to aid the search for interstellar signals, Herzog encounters Jay Lockman, an astronomer who likes to play the banjo. Nearby are a small colony of people who are hiding from the internet. Jennifer Woods, like Michael McKean's character on Better Call Saul, is infernally sensitive to electromagnetic radiation. Here also are self-proclaimed internet addicts, who can't even talk about the oceans of time they evaporated online, for fear of a relapse.

What does this all add up to: Korean gamers, diapered so they don't have to leave their keyboards for a bathroom break; cagey government cyber-warriors, celebrity hackers, and an interview with the astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, who has a tattoo on her left shoulder of the art surveyed in Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams?

We don't realize how dependent we are on this world-wide web, subject to utter collapse due to hacking, solar flares or some other unseen danger—perhaps even, ridiculous though it sounds, Skynet-style sentience. What of the possibility of the internet on Mars? Here, Herzog offers himself up to Elon Musk as a passenger in that tycoon's private Martian rocket.

Musk could do worse. I'm as sensitive to advertisements as some people are to radio waves, and I've lately been exposed to a persistent TV commercial of a family cracking up under the strain of a half hour without DSL. This didn't strike me as funny, but as decadent, and perhaps terrifying. What's more scary—contemplating the vanishing of the internet, or contemplating its very existence, its possibilities for surveillance and harm?

Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World
PG-13; 98 Mins.
Camera 3

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