‘Theater of Thought’ Review: Werner Herzog Crafts a Bracing Exploration of Neurotechnology and Consciousness

‘Theater of Thought’ Review:  Werner Herzog Crafts a Bracing Exploration of Neurotechnology and Consciousness

Having made a film on every continent, tireless searcher Werner Herzog keeps things stateside for Theater of Thought. Even so, he travels far, exploring one of the last great frontiers, the human brain, from a rich multitude of angles. The result is one of his most piercing inquiries yet.

In Silicon Valley and in the laboratories and conference rooms of academia, he speaks with more than two dozen people working at the forefront of neuroscience and neurotechnology, the catch-all term for cutting-edge inventions that link the nervous system to electronic and other devices. Herzog is the clear-eyed student — at times amazed and delighted, and, at others, skeptical and alarmed. Amid the cryostats and nanoparticles and fiber optics, the clunky gadgets and impenetrable-to-the-layperson diagrams, he summons a wry and lyrical mix of awe and foreboding.

Theater of Thought

The Bottom Line

A quintessentially Herzogian fusion of hope, horror, humor and heart.

Like his 2020 doc, Fireball, a film that studied meteors through chemistry, geology and mythology, entering the kind of territory Joseph Campbell called the inner reaches of outer space, Theater of Thought navigates the places where science and poetics diverge, entwine and sometimes fuse. (Both films were edited with crisp precision by Marco Capalbo.) Herzog’s interviewees are entrepreneurs, mathematicians, surgeons, philosophers. For good measure, he spends quality time in the Catskills with a renowned high-wire artist. Crucially, he includes a clip from a Soviet-era silent film, Earth, that captures a character at the brink of death; another character wants him to report back from the other side. The possibility of afterlife communication is one of the what-ifs Herzog asks the experts to ponder, his questions driving the documentary’s progression from interview to interview, synapse to synapse.

As Theater peers beneath the skull — its only literal glimpse at the pulsating gray matter is a brief one — the movie is as steeped in metaphysics as it is in brain science. It’s also a trenchant, deeply felt warning: When computers can extract information directly from the brain or feed commands straight into it, privacy, autonomy and the very sense of self are at stake.

For all the unease over ethical questions, the film opens with a pastoral sense of calm: Side by side on a rock beneath trees in brilliant full leaf, Herzog and neurobiologist Rafael Yuste, the film’s chief scientific adviser, gaze at a laptop. We can’t see what’s on the screen or hear what they’re saying, but their unforced camaraderie hints at the spontaneous bursts of tenderness that punctuate the doc — as when Herzog interviews Cori Bargmann and Richard Axel, scientists who are married to each other, and catches them off guard with his questions about music, and dinner conversation, and the possibility of communicating with animals. Such moments bring to the fore the unspoken challenge that courses through the film: Could a brain-computer interface conjure such emotion, such unexpected chords of sweet, awkward, lovely feeling?

Herzog draws a beaming smile from Darío Gil, IBM’s head of research, when, after a tour of the quantum-computer lab, he asks him about fishing. The oceans — another frontier whose depths have only begun to be plumbed — becomes a subtheme. After posing the somewhat loaded question “How stupid is Siri?” to AI expert Tom Gruber, one of the creators of the virtual assistant, Herzog admires videos from Gruber’s dives, sparking a discussion of collective blindness in schools of fish and human societies alike — blindness to trawling nets, blindness to destructive courses of action. Neuroscientist Christof Koch insists that Herzog interview him only after he’s had his morning row on Puget Sound, immersed in the bliss of being “all motion … in the flow without thought.”

A different kind of flow, one that leaves no room for fear, defines the mental prowess of Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who enthralled the world with his 1974 walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center (a story told in the magnificent documentary Man on Wire). It’s enthralling too to see him nearly 50 years later, practicing his art in his rural New York backyard. Herzog’s visit with Petit follows his conversation with Joseph LeDoux, who has mapped the mechanisms of fear in the brain.

At the heart of all this is the mystery of how a mass of ridged and folded tissue, the cerebral cortex, gives rise to consciousness — a mystery that remains unsolved even as the experts find ways to interact with neurons, control the nervous system and counteract disorders with such therapeutic procedures as deep brain stimulation. For people who have suffered a stroke or have Parkinson’s, the results can be miraculous. An engineer shares his prototype for a chip implant that might restore sight to those with optic nerve damage.

It goes without comment in the film that research on animals is apparently still part and parcel of many of the innovators’ and scholars’ work. Herzog is concerned with how people are the guinea pigs. The new brain technologies can regulate behavior and thought in ways that, bioethicist Sara Goering notes, would gratify advertisers. Talk about direct-to-consumer! And so the field of neurorights is a growing legal focus. In 2021, when Herzog was making Theater of Thought, Chile became the first nation to amend its constitution to protect mental privacy and personal identity from invasive technologies. The doc acknowledges this landmark without explaining the amendment, which is being regarded as a potential model for other countries.

Herzog’s stateside travels bring him, inevitably, to the projection booth of an old-school movie theater, the Roxie in San Francisco, where he meets neuroscientist Jack Gallant, who studies the human visual system and decodes mental imagery. Surfacing here and in other conversations is another underlying anxiety about neurotechnology, one that’s close to Herzog’s heart: Will tech-enabled telepathy and other hot-wired feeds to the nervous system render filmmaking and movie watching as we know them obsolete? Or maybe, Herzog ventures, everything we think is real has been a delusion all along. “Are we,” he asks hauntingly, as only he can, “behind our facades, ghostwritten?” Having contemplated what makes us human via spectacular prehistoric evidence, the auteur asks us to consider a science fiction future that’s closer than we might want to believe.