April 29, 2011


Cave of Forgotten Dreams would have worked better as a television special instead of overextending itself into a feature length format. Considering the subject matter—the oldest paintings known to man—will likely be inaccessible to the vast majority of people outside of the scientific field, there is merit in the existence of the Warner Herzog directed and narrated documentary. However, the feature overstays its welcome and you can feel it lurch towards the credits. The miraculous 3D that brings you inside the Chauvet cave of France is the heart of the film but even that wears thin at times. While it is a worthy look into our past as humans, a livelier tone would have helped keep the film from sagging under its run time. Hit the jump for the full review.

The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave of southern France was discovered in 1994 and was so well-preserved because of its natural formations, some scientists wondered if it was an elaborate hoax. However, the cave formations on the surface of the drawings signifies that this is no rouse: the paintings date back over 30,000 years ago, giving us a glimpse at the junction between modern humans and the Neanderthals. Because the scientific community wants to preserve the cave, it has recently been shut down to all tourist traffic, and Herzog was granted the opportunity to give us a three-dimensional tour of the cave. This lone angle—using 3D cameras to showcase the cave paintings—represents a true benefit of the extra dimension’s ability to showcase the bends and curves of the paintings and give a sense of truly being part of the expedition. As with any film bearing his name, Herzog brings his own viewpoints and style to the proceedings, infusing the journey with a visual and mental feast that leaves much to be discussed.

Werner Herzog’s style is unique, and the ability to corral that into a coherent narrative can be tricky. While editors Joe Bini and Maya Hawke do a remarkable job at focusing the film on the display of the cave art, Herzog’s ponderous nature works its way in as he interviews a varied cast of experts. Some of the inclusions are off-the-wall, in particular a master perfumer recruited to expound on the qualities of the air inside and out of the cave. Then there are the handful that truly give you something to mull over. Sometimes it is humorous, but often it is just something to think about beyond the paintings themselves. Does the mysterious alter signify anything beyond worship? Was the cave even used as shelter, or just simply as a display of art? Are there any clues as to what the painters were thinking or is it like the title suggests, and simply forgotten?

While all of this sounds compelling enough to fill out the 90 minute run time, it becomes repetitive and frustrating. At times, we are given a visual scan of an area and then delve into the highlights, then we scan through them again. This scan, explain, scan again formula works wonders to add depth to the paintings. Yet it also becomes tedious. The droning score and slow proceedings might just put some in the audience to sleep—I’m sure a few at my screening would also blame the 3D shades as well. While that observation is not meant as a negative, it does say something about the pacing of the documentary. Perhaps cave paintings as a subject matter is inherently sleep-inducing, but if the past few years of film have taught me anything it is that unlikely subjects can become compelling in the right hands.

Herzog’s ultimate mark on the film may be the fact that the paintings do feel thoroughly explored beyond a visual medium. This isn’t a by-the-numbers documentary by any means; the deliriously compelling sidenote about albino alligators near a nuclear reactor just a few miles away from the caves is testament to that. Yet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams at times feels as confined as the cave itself. There is much to appreciate, but the documentary has a tendency to ruminate on subjects and thoughts far too long without providing any additional benefit. Even the 3D, while almost always excellent, can at times become a flickering or bobbling mess. Herzog found one of the most compelling uses of the extra dimension and gives us access like never before, but the film leaves much to be desired.

Score: C+

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