“Dreams Rewired,” a montage of clips from nearly 200 vintage films, is a lively, visually enthralling attempt to gaze into the future by remembering the past. The snippets — mostly obscure excerpts from dramas, cartoons and scientific and educational films — are seamlessly fused into a whoosh of images, many of them zany, all from the 1880s to the 1930s. The later ones have sound.
Directed by Manu Luksch, Martin Reinhart and Thomas Tode, a German-Austrian team, and written by Ms. Luksch and Mukul Patel, “Dreams Rewired” reminds you that anxieties about the potentially destructive effects of new technologies are nothing recent. The film is narrated by Tilda Swinton, whose words have the pseudo-oracular tone of an introduction to a “Twilight Zone” episode.
Simultaneously backward-looking and forward-looking, the film makes you feel like a tiny scurrying insect on the global anthill. The unspoken dread that infuses the film is older than Orwell’s “1984”: a fearful fascination with the obliteration of personal identity and the nightmare of human beings as robotic puppets manipulated by the mass media. A recurrent theme is surveillance. Electronic media have allowed us to surveil ourselves, while the powers that be secretly watch us without our knowledge. But “Dreams Rewired” makes no judgments.
The movie’s vaguely ominous tone is established by the opening images of a restless crowd in an unidentified location. It quickly settles into an informal history of the invention of various technological miracles: the telephone, movies, radio, the phonograph and eventually television and computers. One of the most vivid scenes shows telephone operators making connections. The narrator wryly observes that they were mostly women because men didn’t have the patience for the job.
Much of the screenplay consists of vaguely poetic pronouncements, which Ms. Swinton delivers with an undertone of amusement. “Every generation thinks that is the modern age.” “Our time is a time of total connection. Distance is zero.” “To be is to be connected.” “Geography is history.” Blah, blah, blah. Other aphorisms include: “If we see what’s in store for us, could we refuse it?” And, most scarily: “Today in our pockets. Tomorrow woven into our bodies.”
Names are dropped. There are brief excerpts from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton movies and the works of pioneering filmmakers like Alice Guy-Blaché, Georges Méliès, Sergei Eisenstein and D. W. Griffith. A longer sequence consists of scenes of the 1936 Olympics, described as the first made-for-television event.
“Dreams Rewired” is mostly content to entertain. Its explanations of how new inventions work are simplified to the point of superficiality. Although it plays with a fundamental question — how much and in what ways does technology change us? — it barely begins to address the issue. It may sound cool to say, “To be is to be connected.” But what does that really mean?
“Dreams Rewired” is not rated. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.
Correction: December 16, 2015
Because of an editing error, an earlier of this review referred incorrectly to one of the directors and writers, Manu Luksch. She is a woman, and thus is Ms. Luksch, not Mr. Luksch. The review also misquoted two sentences of the narration. They are: “Today in our pockets. Tomorrow woven into our bodies,” not: “Today is in our pockets. Tomorrow is woven into our bodies.”