REVIEW: Herzog Spins a Paleolithic 3-D Fairy Tale in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Movieline Score: 9

Not so long ago, 3-D technology was being trumpeted as the future of movies. Now that that future has become business as usual, with a new 3-D picture (or a retrofitted one) opening nearly every other week -- and with the radioactive glow of Avatar growing dimmer with the passage of time -- what's left to look forward to? The answer may lie in 3-D films made by genius weirdos like Werner Herzog.

Herzog's latest documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, doesn't bring 3-D to dazzling new heights. Instead, it uses this relatively new technology to burrow a little deeper, both literally and figuratively, into history -- into the nature of mankind, even. Herzog and his small team take their cameras into Chauvet Cave, a warren in France that, until its discovery in 1994, had been sealed off by a fallen rock face for more than 20,000 years. The marks and drawings on the walls inside -- which include all manner of animal likenesses, as well as polka-dot arrangements of human handprints -- are more than 30,000 years old, more ancient than the perhaps more famous drawings at Lascaux.

Chauvet Cave is not open to visitors, and only select researchers have been allowed inside. It was a stroke of brilliance on someone's part to let Herzog in, not just with his cameras but with his running loop of impressionistic patter. He wonders aloud if his crew's minimal lighting, flickering against the surface of these strange and marvelous etchings, is anything like the shifting glow of torches that might have illuminated the same space thousands of years ago. He indicates how a drawing of a bison has been fitted with eight legs to suggest movement, calling it "almost a form of protocinema." He startles a sweet, serious French archaeologist by earnestly posing unanswerable questions about the artists who made these drawings so long ago: "Do they dream? Do they cry at night?"

You can't help but giggle at that question, but it's not an invalid one. And somehow, the combination of haunting images and wackadoo Herzogian narration works. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is compelling, sometimes in a hypnotic, sleepy-bye way. When I first saw it last fall in Toronto, some of my movie-exhausted colleagues confessed that they'd dozed off, just a little, while watching it. That wasn't necessarily a damnation of the film. For one thing the score, by Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, has the sonorousness of a mama beast lowing for her young. Herzog's voice is another kind of otherworldly effect: With its precise consonants and slow-creeping vowels, it sounds as if it could belong to a mysterious undersea creature just blinking itself awake from a long slumber.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams also includes interviews with various archeological history types who elucidate details about the strange treasures found in these caves and others like them: One tootles the Star Spangled Banner on a slender flute he modeled after similar prehistoric instruments. Others expound on the significance of pot-bellied fertility figures.

But the big question, of course, is what does Herzog bring to the already overladen 3-D table? Cave of Forgotten Dreams gets a little too talky in places, particularly given the stark beauty of its visuals: They're simple, effective, and as vital as a heartbeat.

Herzog uses 3-D to feel his way across the landscape around the cave. His cameras creep along the riverbanks nearby and soar straight into the blue sky. But it's inside the cave that the greatest wonders are to found. We get a sense of how these early artists, with rock as their canvas, used the contours of that surface to add dimension and movement to their drawings. We see a pride of lion, with square jaws and mournful eyes, marching nobly across one surface; a few rhino charge across the expanse of another, horns held aloft. (It's noteworthy that the drawings inside Chauvet Cave weren't done all at once; some may have been produced thousands of years apart.)

There are other decorations around these figures, also part of the life of the cave: Cave-bear skulls litter the floor here and there; there are stalagmites and -tites that look like maple-sugar candy or sparkly Silly Sand, glittering with crystals that gently catch the light. Herzog's camera captures it all, in a way that mingles science and a sense of wonder as if they were interchangeable -- because sometimes they are.

In the director's statement included in the movie's press materials, Herzog speaks of seeing in a shop window, at age 12, a book about the cave paintings at Lascaux. He was so excited by the book that he saved up more than six months to buy it. Herzog dots Cave of Forgotten Dreams with deep observations ("What constitutes humanness?") and odd little interludes: The movie's coda is a bizarre report on a group of mutant albino crocodiles who live near Chauvet Cave in a body of water warmed unnaturally by the cooling system of a nearby power plant. He spins a fairy tale about the possibility of the crocodiles making their way to the gaze at these wondrous drawings. This image is whimsical, poetic, highly unlikely. But more than that, there's no way those crocodiles could possibly enjoy these half purely naturalistic, half mystical drawings more than the mysterious undersea creature Herzog does.