Throughout this year’s Sundance Film Festival, whenever I’d run into my fellow critics, we’d go through the usual ritual exchange of, “What have you liked so far?” Passing movie titles back and forth, more often than I could count, the conversation would end with one or both of us saying, “Of course, the best thing I’ve seen is that Don Hertzfeldt cartoon, ‘World Of Tomorrow.’ I don’t expect anything to top it.”
Can an animated short be the best film at a festival? Or the best of the year? Because although “World Of Tomorrow” is only 15 minutes long, it’s as funny, imaginative, and heartbreaking as anything released so far in 2015, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I could make that same claim on December 31. At Sundance, where I had a link to an online screener, I watched “World Of Tomorrow” nearly every night before I went to sleep, as a pre-bedtime devotional. I’ve done the same a few times since Hertzfeldt recently made the film available as a 30-day rental via Vimeo. For me, the brevity of “World Of Tomorrow” isn’t a stumbling block, it’s a virtue. How often is a movie this outstanding also so concise that it can be watched at least once a day?
“World Of Tomorrow” is about two Emilys. The first, Emily Prime, is a toddler from our near future, who at the start of the film answers a call on an elaborate videophone/computer console. The woman contacting her is a third-generation version of herself—call her Emily 3G—created via a soon-to-be-popular cloning process in which people spawn their own doubles and then upload their memories into them, in an attempt to live forever. But 227 years from when Emily Prime answers the phone, the world is about to end, so Emily 3G contacts her original self to tell her about what her life is going to be like for the next couple of centuries.
Hertzfeldt has said that “World Of Tomorrow” was inspired in part by those old science magazines and short subjects that predicted what the decades to come would be, after we’d developed flying cars and food pills. In Hertzfeldt’s future, humanity is obsessed with preservation and nostalgia. Those who can’t clone themselves store their memories in digital cubes, or allow their dead faces to be stretched over animatronic machines so that they can still be a part of their loved ones’ lives. And since robots do most of the work, the citizens of this new clone-dominated culture spend most of their time accessing old memories, as part of an effort to understand what it means to be human. In recent years, Emily 3G explains, most people’s memories are of themselves staring at screens.
That image of infinite regression—clones watching clones watching clones—is a good starting point for understanding what’s so special about “World Of Tomorrow.” Most importantly, it’s humorous. I don’t want to kill the comedy through over-explanation, but the shot of people remembering themselves remembering themselves remembering memories works because of the blank expressions, coupled with the whole idea of screens within screens. It’s also a sad image, with the figure becoming less animated (and literally bluer) the further it recedes from the original memory. And the picture is aesthetically pleasing, adding layers of lines and shapes that drift through, giving the frame a depth that disguises the overall flatness of the characters and the setting. This goes on throughout the short: There’s nearly always something in motion around the two Emilys, who themselves remain mostly static.
This has been the trend in Hertzfeldt’s work, toward more visual density. The animator first drew attention with the stick-figures and sick jokes in cartoons like 1998’s “Billy’s Balloon” and 2000’s “Rejected,” but over the past decade he’s been mixing minimalism with bursts of eye-popping abstraction, in service of complex explorations of human existence. (The full scope of Hertzfeldt’s ambition is most evident in his triptych feature It’s Such A Beautiful Day, which The A.V. Club named the eighth-best film of 2012.)
In “World Of Tomorrow,” Hertzfeldt opens with a black-and-white side-view of the videophone that looks like nothing more than a random (and somewhat rude) assortment of lines and curves. Soon though, the screen becomes a riot of color and symbols—as though it were a window into a future that our early 21st century brains can barely understand.
Even if there were nothing to “World Of Tomorrow” but Hertzfeldt’s art, it’d still be a delight. Pause the film at random and there’s nearly always something pretty to see, whether it’s the contrast of thick-lined characters and yellowish haze when Emily 3G warns against “getting lost in memory”…
… or the squiggly, light-sensitive robots that Emily 3G once supervised on the moon…
… or the projections on the wall of the “memory gallery” that Emily 3G opens later in her life.
What really brings these pictures to life though is how the visitor from the future puts them into the context of her personal biography. Julia Pott, the voice of Emily 3G, maintains a careful monotone as she describes the extreme social stratification and continued blurring of the lines between technology and biology in her time. She casually drops lines like, “We are all doomed, Emily Prime,” and explains the dangers of time travel—which she pronounces as one strangely accented word: “timeTRAVel”—and then immediately pulls her ancestor into her era, without a second thought toward whether she might kill her in the process.
Then she tells the little girl about her life as a copy of a copy of a copy, cursed with a deteriorating understanding of why she exists. A lot of Emily 3G’s story revolves around all the times she thought she was in love: with a sparkly rock, a fuel pump, a space-monster named Simon, and finally with her husband, an aged clone related to an organic art exhibit she’d enjoyed as a youngster. She explains that when her husband died, she had “no capacity” to deal with it, and that she now mostly just sits quietly and feels bad. “I am very proud of my sadness,” Emily 3G adds, “Because it means I am more alive.” It’s a touching moment—but then it’s also astonishing how much emotion Hertzfeldt is able to wring out of these little stick-people, just through the slightest tilt of the head or by forming a lovely pattern just behind them.
All of the above makes “World Of Tomorrow” sound heavy, which the film definitely can be. But it’s also frequently hilarious, and cute. Emily 3G’s deadpan adds some dry wit to the scene when she recalls the first messages her grandfather sent after he was uploaded into a digital cube (“Oh. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh my God. Holy mother of God. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh God.”) or when she recites some of the poetry written by her abandoned moon-robots (“The light is life. Robot must move. Move robot move. But why? Move move move. Robot forever move.”) It’s also unbelievably adorable every time Emily 3G tries to impart mind-blowing information to this confused-but-friendly little kid (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s equally oblivious niece Winona Mae), who responds with questions like, “Do you like my cars?”
The Burns and Allen dynamic between the two Emilys reinforces one of the major themes of the film: the constant push and pull between mankind’s reckless, youthful spirit and our cold, queasy rationality. (“Now is the envy of all of the dead,” Emily 3G tells Emily Prime. “Okay,” the little girl chirps.) Even the visual design and animation makes that point. Emily Prime comes bouncing into the picture, pigtails flopping, while Emily 3G stares straight ahead, her hair thin and flat. And when Emily Prime becomes overwhelmed by what Emily 3G is telling her, she puts her head down on the computer console, looking like a wild, uncontrolled element spilling across a technological marvel.
Yet even though Emily 3G seems disconnected from her past self, by the end of “World Of Tomorrow” it’s clear that she feels a pang of envy at how casual and carefree Emily Prime is. “It is a sad life, and a long life,” she warns. “You will feel a deep longing for something you cannot remember.” Emily 3G says this right after she finishes what she set out to do: extracting a memory from Emily Prime (of her and her mother taking a walk) to use as a comfort during the impending apocalypse. After hundreds of years of extending life and acquiring knowledge, in the end what we all may really want someday is to get back what we had when we were 3.
It’s hard to talk about the overall “World Of Tomorrow” experience without getting into the ending, so forgive the following spoiler. (Or, better yet, pony up the $3.99, rent the short, and then come back and read the rest of this.) Throughout the film, Emily 3G’s callousness is worrisome, as she talks about all the thinking, feeling entities that she’s left behind over the years on her personal journey. So inevitably, when she’s done with Emily Prime, she sends her back into the past but overshoots the mark, seemingly stranding her in a snowy prehistoric landscape. Hertzfeldt holds on that scene for a few uncomfortable seconds, letting the music swell as though the credits are about to roll. Then he pops Emily Prime back into her home, without explanation.
Logically, this is what has to happen, because otherwise there’d be no Emily 3G and no movie. But I like to see this ending as a moment of divine intervention from Hertzfeldt, granting a reprieve to a character too sweet to kill. “World Of Tomorrow” is dark at times, and deeply concerned with the meaning of life, but one of the main reasons why I’ve watched it so many times—and plan to watch it so many more—is that it stares into the void and then cheerily shrugs. “What a happy day it is,” Emily Prime says as she skips out of sight. And for a moment anyway, that’s so true.