I’m not generally a fan of documentaries. They can be very biased and/or preachy about their subjects, often to a masturbatory extent. Moreover, it’s rare to see a nonfiction film that’s decently paced, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. I also find documentaries quite difficult to review, as they have no acting, character development or story such as I’m used to analyzing in most movies. Luckily, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not an ordinary documentary.
This is a movie that really has only two selling points, but they’re damn good ones. First is that this film was shot entirely in 3D. I know that’s hardly unusual nowadays, as Hollywood movies are constantly being filmed or converted in 3D. Still, as I sat in the theater, watching cave paintings through a pair of 3D glasses, I thought back to Green Hornet, Thor, Toy Story 3 and all the other movies that were made in 3D post-Avatar. In the process, my mind always came back to one simple question: “WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!”
Countless studios and filmmakers have spent millions of dollars making their movies in 3D, with precious few of them any better for it. Of the ones I’ve seen, only Drive Angry and Piranha 3D really would have been demonstrably worse if seen in 2D, but those films were more about using 3D as a gimmick than a means of immersion. Meanwhile, Warner Herzog and a crew of three other filmmakers with no budget took a tiny, crude camera setup into a cave of all places, and came out with better 3D than I’ve ever seen in any Hollywood blockbuster.
The 3D in this movie is simply a revelation. Not only does it look astounding (how did they get such great lighting in a frakking cave?!), but it’s so essential to the proceedings that this film could never, ever be shown in 2D. The technology is used to beautifully present three-dimensional laser-generated maps of the cave, and also to show intricate prehistoric sculptures in staggering detail. More importantly, the cave paintings themselves utilize stalactites, shadows and rock formations in such an indescribably brilliant way that they were specifically designed to be seen in 3D.
That brings me to this movie’s second selling point: The cave. Everything in this film comes back to the cave.
One of this movie’s strong points is that Herzog doesn’t have any grand message to preach. He isn’t interested in using the cave to make some political or environmental point, just to bring us on a journey into this place so old and fragile that only a handful of people have ever seen it personally. Herzog is mercifully smart enough to know that he doesn’t have to say much, because this cave speaks for itself pretty damn loudly.
Just take a look at this, for example. Take a good, long look at the detail and the shading. Notice how parts of the rock face were scrubbed off so the pictures could be drawn on the white rock underneath. Then realize that the materials used to draw that painting are still crisp and fresh, despite being over 30,000 years old. These paintings are older than gunpowder. Older than the bow and arrow. Older than the concept of written language. Older than the wheel. These paintings were literally drawn by neanderthals and they’re as vivid as anything seen in the Renaissance that came over 29 millenia later!
Oh, but there are far more than just paintings in this cave. There are glistening rock formations so fragile and inticate that they take on an ethereal beauty. Bones of animals long since extinct. They even found crude musical instruments down there! These cavemen couldn’t invent the wheel, but they could make flutes out of animal bones!
I can keep going on about this movie, but it’s no substitute for seeing the movie yourself. In fact, I’d say that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the closest thing to an actual voyage that modern cinematic technology can offer. Werner Herzog is mercifully smart enough to take himself out of the picture (for the most part), only providing what voice-over and scientists’ commentary are needed to understand the value of what we’re seeing. This would be good enough, but the 3D is really what makes this movie soar. This is the rare film that actually reaches the “It’s like I’m really there!” feeling that is the elusive goal of 3D. See this film while you still can and prepare to be amazed.