Movie Review - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Famed and now iconic filmmaker Werner Herzog traveled to France to make a documentary on the Chauvet Cave. The cave was discovered in 1994 and is believed to possess on its walls the world's oldest paintings by humans at over 30,000 years old. Produced by the History Channel, this movie follows in a long line of nature-type movies.

Herzog and a small film crew tagged along with a group of archeologists as they basically gave Herzog a tour of the cave. Disregarding the paintings, the cave itself is beautiful. It's filled with calcified crystals. Almost everything is covered with them, and when those crystals sparkle and shine, it's amazing. The paintings themselves sparkle and shine. They do so with clear signs of ingenuity and great early artistry.

Watching that, I definitely saw and felt its power and importance, and I saw and felt that for the first 30 minutes after Herzog got past the prologue of getting into the cave. After that, the movie got boring. I love Herzog's narration in general, but what makes the movie longer than it needs to be is his philosophizing in voice-over about the meaning and spirituality of the cave. This is echoed in some outside interviews that he conducts for which I didn't care.

The reason I didn't care is because with all the analysis of handprints and carbon dating of ashes, the scientists admittedly can tell us what happened in that cave, but they can't tell us why. The scientists can play like art critics and guess at the meaning and intention behind depictions of mammoths, lions, bison, bears and horses. They can tell us how the paintings were made, when, and what tools were used, but that's it.

It's revealed that a 3D computer model of this cave has been constructed. That along with detailed photographs, we learn that a replica will be built of the cave. The sensitive nature of the calcified crystals and the presence of carbon monoxide in the deeper part of the cave forced the French government to deny public access. The replica therefore will allow everyday people to explore the cave and see it close up.

The replica will be a theme park-like museum exhibit. There may or may not be tour guides yammering, but, for the most part, people will be able to move in the cave however they want and draw whatever conclusions they want. They won't get Herzog's bizarre postscript.

Typically, Herzog's musings would be fine, sometimes even phenomenal, but not here. Here, it's ultimately meaningless. At one point, Herzog shuts up for about five minutes or more, maybe ten. His camera pans across the cave walls with spiritual music playing and a rhythmic heartbeat underneath. It was in that moment I realized that was all the movie was. Anything more was needless padding, politicizing or proselytizing.

Herzog's previous documentary Encounters at the End of the World was far better. It was a far more cinematic experience that took the viewer on a more epic journey. With Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we don't really go anywhere because we really can't. Encounters was brimming with life in front of us whereas Cave only has remnants, the echoes of life. The subject matter may not have been the best choice for a feature film. It might work better as a short with no sound that played in the Smithsonian while people passed.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated G for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.


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