There is no better filmmaker in existence to have made this film, a document of one of the greatest treasures in human history made by a director who is one of the greatest living legends in cinema history. Werner Herzog, who deftly alternates between fiction and documentary films like no other filmmaker alive (Spike Lee has done fairly well in this regard, too), presents a truly jaw-dropping 3D journey through the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, a cave in southern France that houses some of the oldest known artworks of the human race. Through his necessarily limited exploration of the cave (the crew was allowed to film only four hours a day for one week, and only under the strictest of guidelines) and extensive interviews with various fascinating and eccentric experts, Herzog delves into the mysteries of the beginnings of human consciousness and, by looking deep into the past, ultimately considers the possibilities of the future.
The deep underground cave explored and documented in loving detail by Herzog and his crew of four was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet (for whom it was named), Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, who found it by following an air current coming out of the ground. A landslide over 20,000 years ago had sealed the cave, effectively making it a perfect time capsule for the ensuing millennia and keeping its extraordinary artifacts amazingly fresh, which led to suspicions by some that the paintings on the walls were, in fact, a modern hoax. This is briefly addressed in the film, with experts pointing out the layers of calcification over the charcoal lines of the paintings that could only have been produced over thousands of years. The excitement and emotion felt by the many archaeologists, scientists and other experts in various fields is palpable, and the often amazing cinematography makes it infectious.
This is 3D filmmaking at its finest and most essential. While successful past films like James Cameron's Avatar (2009) used the technology to make a fantasy world that the audience could never physically experience into something real and almost tangible, Cave of Forgotten Dreams does the same for a real, earthly place that the audience has no more hope of actually physically experiencing, since the French government has again sealed off the cave in order to protect its contents for generations even further into the future. In a way, then, Herzog's film is like the cave art itself - a unique and truly exceptional piece of human history to be treasured. The use of 3D accentuates the contours of the cave walls and the way that the ancient artists used them in their depictions of the various animals they painted, most of which are now extinct (or at least evolved into the elephants, antelope, bear, lions and other mammals we know today). While the 3D effect is not always as slick and perfect as in CGI extravaganzas like Avatar, the reality of the surfaces it is used to photograph makes it an even more immersive experience; at times I was transported back to the wonder I felt when I saw my first 3D movie as a child, the 1953 Jack Arnold sci-fi thriller It Came from Outer Space (no, I'm not that old - it was a revival), and I literally felt like I could crawl into the screen and walk around the cave myself.
Beyond the visual experience, though, amazing as it really is, Cave raises a number of very intriguing and tantalizingly unanswerable questions about the nature of human development. At one point, we are shown a series of overlapping paintings of antelopes which were created a few thousand years apart (determined by carbon dating), which provides one possible answer for the eternal question of why early humans began to create such art: whether intended or not, perhaps the expressions of the first painter provided instruction for that of the later ones. Additionally, we see several examples of animals depicted with multiple legs, indicating motion in a surprisingly early prototype of cinematic imagery itself. Herzog follows one of these revelations with a throwaway point-of-view shot of one of his 3D cameras in use that, when seen in the intended way on the big screen in 3D, will seriously mess you up.
Many critics and audience members have complained about the film's score by Ernst Reijseger, which is a bit intrusive and gratuitous at times, as well as its slow pace, which I personally found more contemplative and, as the title suggests, dreamlike, and therefore perfect. There is also a "Postscript" at the end of the film that seems to come out of left field and has also been cited as a source of alienation for some, but this actually points, in a somewhat oblique way, to the unanswerable questions that have come before. Herzog, to his great credit, is not interested in answers and solutions, but rather in exploring the great mysteries of the human experience, and this particular excavation is well worth the trip. More impressive than the surprisingly advanced paintings found in the Chauvet cave is the cave itself, which often resembles some sort of alien planet in its strange and sometimes seemingly impossible formations. Even if the ancient paintings that serve as the film's ostensible subject seem a little primitive to our modern eyes, nature is still as wild and wondrous as ever, and Herzog captures it like no other.
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