The thing that's being touted first and foremost, so let's get it out of the way, is the 3D, and that a director with such a maverick career (and screw McCain, THIS is a Maverick right here) would suddenly get on the 3D bandwagon. But with this film, the 3D was subtly effective; it's not like how a lot of 3D is that's so in your face, or makes you not be able to get a good handle on foreground-background with your eyes (re: Jim Emerson/Walter Murch for more details)- but rather it's made more for the pictures on the wall to stick out, more pronounced. Only a few times was I annoyed by a shot obfuscated by bushes or something or a hand coming to the screen. The rest of the time it just made the surroundings more pronounced, including (my favorite) crystals on the walls.
It's a fascinating look into artistic process, though this comes after the initial thrill of getting an exclusive look at cave walls in France that contain the first found drawings by ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. It's also how humans have always (possibly) had a need to tell stories. The only thing keeping it from being IMAX is that... it's not really IMAX-like: it's shot on cameras that are more of the variety that are seemingly lower-grade, at least at first. According to IMDB it was shot on a HDCAM-SR (4:4:4 SQ) and was done through 3D. But it's strange as at times the quality does look really spectacular and crisp and clear (and Herzog and his DP Peter Zeitlinger have fun with the iris in certain shots opening and closing out the light), and others look more low-grade like what he used to shoot the iguana in Port of Call New Orleans.
Actually, more than fascinating: Herzog is trying to find in this story, and perhaps does find, the key to human expression, and what makes us human and apart from the animals. At one point one of the scientists has a computer demonstration of the time-line between the forces on the cave walls: first came the bear, who would just scratch at the wall, and then a human who would use a stick and make a drawing up eight feet high. Then another human would come along and build upon it (or maybe it was the same one) and make it into more images, and then suddenly there's a story being told, action happening. I was completely absorbed in these scenes, where we see how the first moving images we're being made, sort of (what Herzog called "Proto-Cinema") and it being with animals mostly.
Mostly in that there is one illustration on these walls are animals, and there is only one human seen: the below-waist section of a woman entwined with a... buffalo. This is another of those fascinating things about the film, learning about the way human beings saw animals and nature around them then, and how they were as much documentarians themselves as artists. But for Herzog, this isn't quite enough for a movie, and thankfully so. It's not 'dry' material, but it may vary for some audiences. I could see people being bored by a few sections in the film, mostly involving talking heads going on about this or that in the cave or outside of it, more like you'd see a tour guide in a museum do it.
If I am going to have someone take me by the hand in a museum and go "here, look at this, I present it to you like so" and it's Werner Herzog, I'll go along with it. And since it's Herzog he has his own way of making it unique to the way he sees it. There's a haunting moment, right out of the best of his work, where one of the scientists in the cave asks for a moment of silence so one can hear his/her own heartbeat. Everyone is quiet, the camera pans, there's also a shot of people standing still holding up a picture, and the eerie music that flows throughout Herzog's film (nay, his ouvere in general) comes through. And there is a heartbeat heard too. With the audience I saw the film with- packed house, special event pre-release screening- you could hear a pin drop.
The other interesting thing, or things, is what Herzog finds outside of the cave. He finds a man who spends his life trying to find caves (or, he also sells perfumes, so this is like a hobby we're told) with his sense of smell and being able somehow to find caves - whether he's found many he doesn't really say, though his face says a lot about that we can read into. Another fellow scientist shows how people in the Paleolithic era would hunt and shows with some less-than-adequate (but admirable) skill how to throw a spear. Other interviewees are more straightforward, save for a moment of intrigue with an ex-Circus unicyclist who became a cave-scientist.
But most surreal-yet-perfect is how Herzog wraps up this film, which for the most part has been wonderful talking heads matched up with wonderful, hypnotic footage of the caves (sometimes in still shots, other times moving and panning around, which makes for the effective 3D I mentioned before) is the Postscript, where he shows a nuclear power plant some twenty miles away and more specifically a greenhouse. Only this greenhouse is more of a place to house tropical green-plants and crocodiles. And not just any crocodiles, oh no, crocodiles mutated by radiation and having albino alligator babies. And just when Nicolas Cage's iguanas weren't enough for you... and yet it's still perfect because of how he makes it tie into what we've just seen, and how humanity is such a fragile and terrifying thing but that it can be so precious and magical and inexplicable.
It's this kind of wonder- whether or not its there is another matter- that makes Herzog the great filmmaker and storyteller that he is. Few minds in cinema are so inquisitive, visually audacious and just... odd.