I've had really high hopes for 3D since Avatar impressed me last year but have only ever been disappointed since. All this retro fitting, remakes and flickering action sequences has really started to bug me. So, when a few months back I heard Herzog was working on a 3D documentary film, I couldn't help but grin. Finally, I thought, a 3D film that isn't going to be a bloated blockbuster.
This films subject The Chauvet Cave in southern France was only discovered in 1994. It contains the most extraordinary array of cave paintings dated from between 23,000 to 30,000 years ago as well as fantastic calcite formations, stalagmites/stalactites and ancient bones of creatures long migrated from the continent. The cave was apparently sealed by a landslide many millennia ago which has preserved everything perfectly. It's really something special to see and the sense of great privilege is conveyed by Werner early on in his very proud introduction. He is the only filmmaker to ever have been allowed access to the cave and throughout I couldn't help picturing everyone at the BBC and Discovery Channel shrugging jealously.
The picture starts with some really beautiful shots of the French vinyards and mountains near the cave. It's presentation is what we've come to expect and it's instantly engaging. Long roving shots from a remote flying camera, hand-held POV's up mountain paths. The problems only start when we get inside the cave. Werner explains that the equipment that they could take in has to be very limited and they use non-professional camera gear. This isn't necessarily the problem though, we can take it with a pinch of salt. The real problem is in the 3D.
First of all there is little light in the cave and so the gain is pushed into the camera signal and there's a lot of digital noise, especially in the dark areas, of which there are a lot. Now, noise/grain is always forgivable, until it starts dancing around in 3D, then it gives you a terrible headache. A lot of the shots are lit solely by a moving torch light and the constant re-focussing of your eyes only strains them further. However. the cave is quite amazing and we get to see it in detail. Later in the film some much better lit 3d shots are shown that really should have been used throughout. Footage of the cave is interspersed with interviews with various characters. The decision to use a rather generic voice over in place of subtitles for these interviews was certainly a small misstep and dries it up a touch, but the film is not without it's moments. There are a couple of hilarious exchanges where Werner has typically cut someone off too early or left them hanging when they have finished. I do get the sense that he has become self aware and when chuckles are raised as Werner describes a cave painting as “Proto-cinema” I detected at least a hint of self parody, which I don't mind at all.
The film winds up with the most spectacularly detailed shots of all, they do linger on a bit too long and I think the back half of the film would benefit from a cut of about 10 minutes. Having said all this, despite the technical distractions, the film is a semi-triumph in the way Encounters at the end of the world was. Some really great personal touches and a fascinating subject, but for god's sake see it in glorious 2D.