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Cave of Forgotten Dreams - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Directing: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A
Editing: B+

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is unique in a multitude of ways, not least of which is its documentary use of 3-D; unlike many other films which are converted after the fact, this was filmed with 3-D cameras. And in an era where 3-D is over-used and usually useless, a new utility for the medium comes from the unlikeliest of places: eccentric director Werner Herzog.

But this is a far cry from the persistently frustrating Grizzly Man. Although Herzog has an unavoidable presence, he doesn't insert himself personally into the narrative of the film to nearly the same degree as he has in past documentaries. This is largely because whatever astonishment he may be feeling at what he's seeing, and picking up on his very limited camera equipment, we feel as well.

And although, as someone usually bent on dismissing 3-D as a racket, I'd be hard pressed to say the difference in seeing this film in 2-D would be anything more than negligible, here the 3-D element works in the film's favor -- most of the time. As Herzog and his tiny crew slowly works their way through the Chauvet Cave, where by far the oldest known cave paintings were discovered in 1994, we are treated to visions of artwork of truly astonishing sophistication given their age. They are drawn and painted over very contoured surfaces, and the special camera equipment doesn't so much shove them into your face as bring them to life in a way nothing else could, besides of course actually being there.

But actually being there really isn't an option. Herzog and his crew were granted a very rare privilege in getting access; they had very limited time they could spend in the cave; they were forbidden from touching anything; they weren't even allowed to use lighting that gave off any heat. When the walk in, a bank vault-type door is locked behind them. The closest any regular person will come to experiencing these paintings in person is the planned identical replica of the cave to be built a few miles away.

There are moments, of course, where even here the 3-D doesn't quite work. It's especially a problem when people are in the shot, as it creates an unnatural effect where the people look smaller than normal while the cave features behind them look larger. In one shot, a guy being interviewed stands well in front of a wide stalactite, but somehow the stalactite looks as though it's in the foreground. It's a jarring effect. In another shot, two people stand next to each other with a rock featuring 30,000-year-old hand prints in the background behind them. The 3-D effects render the rock farther away, but part of that background is rendered larger, as though closer, in a blurred line outlining the people, giving them an odd, ghostly quality.

In a way, though, these elements actually enhance the experience, because if lends an otherworldly quality to the proceedings -- something the people actually there are clearly feeling. And the amount of time spent with straightforward footage of nothing but the cave art, which is when the 3-D works best, more than makes up for any distractions it might cause.

Herzog really makes you feel like you're there with him, almost experiencing time travel. This gigantic cave is filled with artifacts, almost all of it completely covered in beautifully sparkly calcite deposits, that have remained untouched for tens of thousands of years. This includes the bones of many animals, from cave bears to lions to birds, but curiously, no human bones -- only the evidence of human presence: the paintings; a deliberately arranged pile of rocks; an animal skull perched on what may have been used as an altar.

There are some interviews conducted outside the cave, mostly of the scientists who are studying the cave (one great sequence show's a 3-D animated computer model of every point in the cave), but Herzog wisely limits his time spent on them. Here is where his own personality breaks through most, though usually to amusing effect: he discovers one scientist used to work as a juggler in the circus.

For the most part, the imagery from inside the cave speaks for itself, and to such a degree that his frequent returns to the same specific paintings never get old. He plays with light and shadow in the dark of the cave with his hand-held light, giving many of the images an almost dream-like quality and enhancing the suggested movement of the paintings themselves: horses running; rhinos fighting; leopards stalking. Much of the footage is of the cave floor, completely covered in the beautiful calcite, and it's nearly as mesmerizing. Large stretches of time are filled with nothing but these images, set to the gorgeous original score by Ernst Reijseger, and it's consistently jaw-dropping.

Herzog can never resist showcasing what an oddball his is, though, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams takes a bizarre detour at the very end where he ruminates on a nearby nuclear power plant and albino crocodiles. This is a very Herzogian Huh? moment, but, honestly, hardly out of character. At least it's brief, and the memory of the truly amazing footage captured in the vast majority of the film will easily overshadow it.

Ancient untold stories unfold on the walls of the 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams'.

Overall: A-
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