There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Aside from Michael Moore, no documentarian is featured as prominently within their own work as Werner Herzog. The director’s face and voice are frequently onscreen, and what an impression they make. The former is as devoid of expression as a Greek bust, and the latter is so deadly serious that it crosses over into comedy. Spouting metaphysical musings in a thick German accent, Herzog is like an alien dropped into human form, sent on a mission of mercy to unravel the mysteries of our world.
His comfort with life’s uncertainties allows him to crawl deep into his dread and tickle the most ferocious beasts. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World is not the first movie to try to figure out what the internet means to our world. It sure won’t be the last. But it is the only one directed by the inimitable Herzog (Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), who finds angles of terror and delight undiscovered by the rest of the natural world.
He starts at the beginning, with a tour of the UCLA research room in which the internet was created in the late ’60s. His elderly, boisterous tour guide speaks of the first communication between servers in celebratory terms, even comparing it to the moment Columbus discovered America. Over the course of Lo and Behold, Herzog finds the sinister meaning in that comparison. He may take a detour into the internet’s more hopeful applications—there is a pleasant interview with a scientist who harnessed the gaming community to finish the design of a cancer treatment—but he remains ultimately committed to man’s seemingly Sisyphean war with his darker impulses.
Some of his interview subjects have been harmed by the internet in ways that seem unimaginable. There is the family who was emailed photos of their daughter’s decapitated body after she was killed in a car crash because an EMT worker shared the pictures around to a few friends (who themselves shared it with a few friends, and so on). When the girl’s mother calls the internet the actual Antichrist, only the most staunch atheist could dare question her suffering by disagreeing. Similarly affecting is a small community of people who suffer from a hyper-sensitivity to radio weaves; once cell phones became popular in the mid-1990s, they were struck with severe pain and nausea before finally finding a small area of land where cell phones have been forbidden. Their lives are extremely limited there, but the afflicted are able to live without pain.
Despite the dark subject matter, Herzog infuses every frame with his ardent humanity. As he queries mathematicians, computer scientists, and even Elon Musk about their theories on the future of the internet, he often cracks wise from behind the camera. He asks a computer scientist if he loves his robot, and the young man, responding to Herzog’s earnestness in kind, admits that he does. In another scene, he tells Musk that he would like to be the first person to travel to Mars—“I would be your candidate,” he drolly intones—and we can’t tell if Herzog is being playful or seriously interested in returning to his home planet.
His bizarre questions often elicit surprising responses from thinkers who seem prepared only to rehash their previously published thoughts on the matter. “Does the internet dream?” he asks, prompting several of his subjects into moments of speechless stupor before they begin to wrap their minds around his. It’s a remarkable achievement. Through his unique artistic lens, Herzog has gotten these professional dreamers to think differently and consider questions that had somehow eluded them. Their answers compose a film that is as imaginative and entertaining as any effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a thing to behold.
If Herzog tackles the mysteries of the universe in poetry, the new remake of Ben-Hur is writing in prose. To explain its failures, it would be easy to point to its lackluster script and wooden performances, but the real problem is spiritual. If you’re going to remake a film that is American canon—like the 1959 original—you need a damn good reason to do so. The filmmakers of this stagnant remake display all the technical tools needed to achieve greatness, but they lack that most basic of functions: a reason why this story needs to be retold.
Maybe you somehow managed to avoid the Charlton Heston version, so here is the run-down. Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell) are adopted brothers who are separated first by religion (Judah is an Israelite and Messala a Roman), and then by state. Messala storms off in a huff one day to join the Roman Army, and when he returns three years later, politics have changed. Judah gets wrongfully accused by plotting to murder Pontius Pilate (played by a Russell Crowe look-alike named Pilou Asbæk) and is sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor in a warship’s galley.
This set-up is laborious and taxing, revealing a maddening miscalculation by the filmmakers. There are no wide shots that would indicate context (one senses that money was being saved for later sequences), with the human drama filmed in a series of close-ups. But director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) doesn’t have the actors to pull off the needed intensity. As Judah, Huston possesses neither the emotional intensity to ground the story nor the range to believably pull of the emotional transformation. Halfway through the film, he unexpectedly shifts into a low growl, as if he’s given up on Ben-Hur altogether and is auditioning to be the next Batman.
Despite the pedestrian staging and poor casting (Morgan Freeman shows up as—wait for it—a wise mentor figure!), Ben-Hur manages to put together one great action sequence. It’s not the climactic race, which is a little too messy and incoherent to be impactful. After five years in the galley, during which Judah transforms into a hardened slave, his fleet is ambushed by Greek warships. As the ship is attacked from afar and then boarded by enemy soldiers, Bekmambetov stages the struggle as an effort to keep order amidst deadly chaos. There are unforgettable visual images—a man on fire beating a drum and an effectively startling POV shot—as well as dramatic twists that are enhanced by Judah’s limited perspective. We only see the battle from inside the galley, which makes every blow frighteningly unexpected. It’s nail-biting action the likes of which we have not seen this year.
So what we have is a talking heads documentary that encapsulates the full scope of human existence, and a $100 million swords-and-sandals epic that, apart from a pair of imaginative action scenes, feels like second-rate cable TV (surprising no one, its co-producer is best known for creating Survivor). If you parse that comparison, there is possibly a lesson for Hollywood executives to learn, or maybe even some universal truth, a mystery that only an existential detective like Herzog could unravel. Fortunately, the lesson for moviegoers is much simpler: See Lo and Behold, and skip Ben-Hur, for a terrifying future is more entertaining than the distant past.
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World opens today at E Street Cinema.
Ben-Hur opens todayat theaters everywhere.