An atypically excellent use of 3-D, Werner Herzog’s latest valentine to science and nature lugs the latest technological fad down to south France’s Chauvet Cave to espy the handiwork of Paleolithic artists. Despite being 30,000 years young, the wall paintings—of lions, of rhinoceroses, of horse-bison battles, even of a lady’s nether regions—have remained in remarkably good state, due in part to strictly limited accessibility. A New Yorker journo who wrote of it in 2008 never even got to go inside; everyone’s favorite German nut gets three hours a day, thus bringing the sights to anyone willing to don a pair of funky, potentially migraine-inducing glasses.
The extra dimension proves a worthy bonus, turning what would be merely fascinating into something entrancingly tactile. The 3-D limns the uneven contours of the cave walls; the bumps, cracks and dips that mar the artwork become as vital as the artwork itself. (Sadly, those who see at the Ritz will have to settle for boring 2-D.) Throughout, Herzog plays reliably cockeyed guide, and at this point in his career, it’s remarkable that he’s never become fully self-aware. His bursts of weirdness feel genuine, as when he gets mentally sidetracked when one of the archaeologists reveals he once juggled in the circus, or even when he engineers a leftfield coda about “radioactive albino crocodiles.” (As with his Bad Lieutenant, the strangest moment goes to watery creatures.)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams acts as a sister film to his stunning Antarctica doc Encounters at the End of the World, but if this one’s hook is meatier, its portrait of the wonders of science proves both slightly inferior and redundant. Even accounting for the researcher who plays a flute and dresses in reindeer skin, this lot is a good deal less eccentric and far more prone to speeches that makes you feel like you should have brought along a Bic pencil and a Trapper Keeper. And despite Herzog’s warmly purple narration—which rhapsodizes on “spiritual” connections to Stone Age man and at one point describes a bison drawn with eight legs, an act meant to simulate movement, as “proto-cinema”—the Cauvet caves would have been better served as one of his many short docs. Still, how often does someone use 3-D for good?