MPI // 2010 // 90 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 29th, 2011
Humanity's Lost Masterpiece
When I stepped out of the theater after seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams I wasn't sure what to make of it. I was struck a few hours later by inspiration, and I texted some friends that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the yin to the yang of Encounters at the End of the World. Whereas Encounters featured a number of voiceovers from Werner Herzog describing Nature's eventual ability to make us obsolete, Cave is a pure celebration of humanity's ability to endure in the face of impossible odds. No, this isn't a documentary about an extraordinary individual (Werner already traveled that road with Little Deiter Needs to Fly), but about the human capacity for art and how that art can endure. It's not Herzog's greatest documentary -- it's never even as great as Encounters -- but it's a fascinating glimpse into our history as a species that should have wide appeal for film fans.
Back in 1994, some enthusiasts in southern France searching for the source of an air current around a mountain stumbled on a cave. That cave -- Chauvet Cave -- was covered in the oldest extant cave paintings yet discovered. The walls were dated to approximately 32,000 years ago. Let that sink in for a moment. The events in The Bible are a fifth of that time nearer to us than the ancestors that painted the cave at Chauvet. Because of the historical significance of this find and the delicacy of the material in the cave, the French government decided to seal it off. Acclaimed documentarian Werner Herzog was granted limited access to film the cave with a group of explorers.
There are so many reasons to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D (Blu-ray):
* The film is a treasure trove for fans of art and art history. We get a series of loving shots of the interior of the cave, patiently documenting all the figures on the walls. These images are striking because of their temporal distance from us, but also because they're all fairly recognizable figures. We see the kinds of animals we would expect, along with a few human figures as well. In addition to the sheer beauty of the cave paintings -- which despite looking crude are also quite beautiful -- we get commentary on the figures in the paining from experts. They discuss not only the aesthetic value of the painting, but where it fits into the timeline of other known cave sites and art movements.
* The film is also great for science fans. In the process of documenting the cave we learn about the various geological forces that shaped the space and kept it closed off for some many thousands of years. We also learn about the difficulty in preserving the site and why it needs to be closed off. The cave itself has also been modeled extensively, and some of the best 3D effects in the movie come when exploring the model.
* The film is also a treat for history buffs. Herzog speaks to those who are trying to understand how and why human beings were in the vicinity of Chauvet. The paintings weren't the only things found in the cave, and the various bits of human evidence tell a story as significant as that of the cave paintings in some ways, and the film isn't afraid to tell that story. It's also not afraid to tell the story of the cave's discovery, which shows that history can rear its head even at the most unlikely of moments.
* Finally, the film is a treat for fans of Werner Herzog. The man's deadpan narration is fun as always, with the director musing in his thick accent about dreams and the French countryside. Again, this is not the director's best work, but it's filled with kinds of shots fans will recognize. There are more than a few shots held after other director's would have cut, leading to some delightfully strange moments, and no one asks interview subjects the same kinds of questions as good ol' Werner.
As befits a relatively minor entry into the director's canon, Cave receives a low-key Blu-ray release. It's a single disc, but it contains both a Blu-ray 3D and regular Blu-ray version of the film. The movie was made using pioneering single-camera 3D techniques, and because of the size of the cave and the necessity to preserve it, the film was largely shot on consumer-grade cameras, at least inside the cave proper. That means this AVC encoded 1.78:1 transfer looks a bit noisier than a lot of contemporary releases. Black levels also aren't as strong as most of us are used to, especially in the cave. Once outside the confines of Chauvet, however, the film picks up quality. The talking head stuff and the exterior landscapes look good, with solid color saturation and plenty of detail. The DTS-HD soundtrack is even better than the film's video. Herzog's narration takes center stage, but the film's use of music is impressive, and that comes through loud and clear on this track.
The film's main extra is a 40-minute film by Herzog on the recording of the film's score. We get to hear from the composer and see the musicians at work in the studio. The film's theatrical trailer is also included.
Sadly, the extras on this disc are a bit of a disappointment. Herzog is always fun when he does commentary tracks, and one would have been appreciated here. Since much was made in the press about the 3D aspects of this film, it would have been nice to see a featurette on the process and hear more of Werner's thoughts on it. Finally, some deleted scenes would also be nice, since Herzog picks such great interview subjects and we know he didn't put everything in the film.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is sure to have a wide appeal, but it's not for everyone. The film can be slow at times, and the 90-minute running time seems to crawl at places. Although extended shots of the interior of the cave will be enjoyed by most, some will undoubtedly grow bored.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a beautiful affirmation of humanity and its desire to create beauty. It's also another solid documentary from Werner Herzog. As long as fans don't expect a tricked-out special edition release, most will be pleased with the solid audiovisual presentation and the lone supplement. The film is worth a rental for fans of art, history, science, or Werner Herzog.
Not guilty and not to be forgotten.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* 2D Version
* Official Site