By Darren Franich
Updated June 13, 2011 at 09:15 PM EDT
Credit: Mark Valesella

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is not exactly the catchiest title in the history of incredibly thematic art-film documentaries. And the eight-word description of the movie — impenetrable German filmmaker films cave paintings, experiences philosophical ecstasy — doesn’t exactly sound like it would play in Peoria. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams wasn’t made by just any impenetrable German filmmaker; it was made by the impenetrable German filmmaker. Werner Herzog’s decision to shoot the 32,000-year-old Chauvet cave paintings in 3-D has resulted in a genuine art-house sensation: Two months after its April opening, the film has grossed $3.7 million, making it the highest-grossing independent documentary of the year according to the Los Angeles Times. (Of course, it was outgrossed by that other 3-D documentary, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.) So how has Cave, which features little more than long shots of immobile cave paintings, become such an indie-success? Let’s count down the main reasons.

1. The 3-D actually makes sense. Recently, there has been an emerging feeling among moviegoers and pundits alike that the 3D format might be reaching its oversaturation point. (Check out my colleague John Young’s state-of-the-medium analysis of 3D cinema for a full report on the controversy.) Ironically, people might be turning against the format right as the format starts stretching: Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Peter Jackson are all filming their next projects in 3-D. You could say that Cave‘s impressive gross isn’t entirely fair, since the price of the 3-D tickets can be practically double the cost of a regular ticket admission. But Cave justifies the 3-D in a way that most films haven’t. With one noteworthy exception — a hilarious scene where a dude throws a spear towards the camera — Herzog uses the 3-D subtly, to give you the feeling of the microscopic contours of the Chauvet caves. Even better, he films in long, slow, unbroken takes, using mostly wide-angles — a far less headache-inducing style than a typical 3-D action movie, which cuts epileptically between various shots until all sense of onscreen spatial realism has dissolved.

2. It’s a desperately pretentious documentary that also has a sense of humor. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is filled constant deep-thought meditations on the nature of humanity; if you want to really freak your kids out about the potential meaninglessness of our existence, show them Cave and The Tree of Life in the same day. But Cave also features hilarious digressions — the director asks one scientist about his past as a juggler in a circus, interviews a strange man who claims to be a perfumist, and ends the film with a hilariously unexpected epilogue about albino crocodiles that may or may not be entirely fictitious.

3. Werner Herzog has become a box office superstar. Or at least an art-film box office superstar. Herzog has arguably eclipsed Morgan Freeman in the pantheon of Great Narration Artists, having developed a hilariously particular voiceover style — somewhere between evil James Bond villain, thoughtful middle-European hippie, and ancient-world philosopher. And since he’s willing to do pretty much anything — voice a plastic bag, guest-star on The Simpsons, make a movie that is apparently a David Lynch spoof that happened to be produced by David Lynch — he’s also become one of the most likable artist-philosophers in cinema today. Now if only he could get around to making that remake of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never starring albino crocodiles…

Readers, have you gotten a chance to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams yet?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich