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‘World of Tomorrow Episode Two’ Is Another Enriching Odyssey From the Mind of Animator Don Hertzfeldt

The sequel to the Oscar-nominated short plumbs our fears of death and technology in another vibrant exploration of the difference between memory and experience

Bitter Films/Ringer illustration

In World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, a little girl named Emily—a bob-headed stick figure with a triangle body and the genuinely random personality of a child—gets a visit from her future self. Sort of. “Hello Emily,” the future Emily says, with robotically British affectation. “I am an incomplete backup copy of your third-generation clone, grown in a storage facility in the outer rings, 254 years in your future.” Future Emily’s got a 6 on her forehead and one of her eyes keeps blinking. “I suffer many deteriorations. I am alone.” Sometime in the future, a catastrophe will wipe out Emily’s genetic line of clones. This backup Emily was meant to be the next Emily clone in line to be uploaded with all of the memories of all the Emilys that came before her, including the original: this little girl. Disaster changed all that. Now an incomplete clone with few memories or experiences of her own, she’s no one.

Maybe that sounds confusing. But this 22-minute animated odyssey by Don Hertzfeldt is, in the moment, enriching, surprising, and extremely alive. It’s a sequel to the even shorter (at just over 16 minutes) Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow (2015), in which the basic ideas of this series are laid bare. (Both shorts are currently available to buy or rent on Vimeo.) This is a world in which we’ve learned to extend our lives, or something like that, by uploading our memories into a succession of clones which, when they die, upload their memories into the next generation, and so on. In the first short, the OG Emily—Emily Prime—gallivanted through time with her third-generation clone, exploring the difference between memory and experience in a vibrantly clashing, cosmic landscape of time and space. (The Emily clones are voiced by Julia Pott, a fellow animator; Emily Prime is voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona.) In the second installment, we get more of the same, only marked with a greater sense of sadness. Who are you if you aren’t your own memories? That’s what this backup clone’s come here to find out.

Just your basic “What is the meaning of life?” cartoon, in other words, from one of the most thematically daring animators in the business. Hertzfeldt, a bona fide cult figure of his field, is most famous for the 2000 short Rejected, a hilarious compilation of cartoons which, per the fictional frame narrative, had been commissioned by the Family Learning Channel and a toothpaste company to run as advertisements. The toons themselves are too vile, too knowingly anti-commercial for all that. If you’re my age, you probably know the punch lines: “My spoon is too big,” “My anus is bleeding,” and on and on, early aughts contemporaries of Homestar Runner’s “Teen Girl Squad,” David Firth’s Salad Fingers, and every other bit of early-viral nonsense I watched on eBaum’s World in middle school. Incongruously but deservingly, Rejected got an Oscar nomination for Best Short Film, Animated—easily one of the most random, inspired nominations in the Academy Awards’ 90-year history, though I’m glad I didn’t know as much in middle school, because it’d have made the toons seem a lot less cool.

Cosmetically, the World of Tomorrow shorts are a world apart from those early Hertzfeldt efforts, more colorful and complicated. But the ideas are still consistent: Hertzfeldt’s animations are violent, chaotic, even juvenile, and frequently pretty sad. But they’re only as violent and juvenile as we are, or so they seem to argue. Hertzfeldt’s enemies are common: technology, consumerism, a commercial art world that stifles individual expression, and perhaps most of all, the inescapably linear path from life to death. In Hertzfeldt’s animation, we are a species eroded—deformed—by our desires, and our technology, and everything that seems to make modern life great. In his 2014 couch gag for The Simpsons, Hertzfeldt morphs a scene of Homer lazily channel surfing into a leap into the future, when Homer becomes “Homar,” and the entire family has evolved into spindly grotesques and tentacled blobs, barely recognizable to each other. The 2005 short The Meaning of Life, meanwhile, starts Kubrick-style with the dawn of man, everyone distilled down to populist postures and catchphrases of the sort that Don DeLillo and Bret Easton Ellis used to make fun of us for. With Tchaikovsky’s grandest, greatest hits booming away in the background, it all becomes increasingly nonsensical, then utterly cosmic, until we emerge in a future having sprouted extra arms and legs, or become crab-people, or simply guttural blobs, everyone a trembling little beast. It’s harsh. It’s also hilarious.

Hertzfeldt’s art is seemingly always concerned with evolution. Change over time. His best and most ambitious work to date is 2012’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, about a guy named Bill, who’s dying. Bill—who, like most of Hertzfeldt’s characters, is essentially a stick figure, distinguished only by a hat and a weary curve under one of his eyes—is a 40-something man in the midst of transition from a thinking, feeling being into a shell who’s losing language and memory and falling into an internal chaos. Sounds depressing, but the movie has something like a sense of humor about Bill’s loneliness. At one point, after an excruciating doctor’s visit and a tiring trial with new medication, Bill goes home and masturbates for seven hours. (We don’t see it.) At another, he stands on a street corner for way too long, slowly overtaken by a leaf blower and a traveling cloud of leaves. It’s a little Adult Swim and a lot Charlie Brown (especially if you’re hip to the theory that Charlie Brown has cancer.) Except, in execution, it’s sparer than all that. Hertzfeldt, who’s known for working with as few collaborators as possible, reduces Bill’s life to little nuggets of experience, letting most of the story play out in what resemble comic book speech bubbles against a black void. But instead of being filled with speech, the bubbles are filled with scenes from Bill’s life—that is, until the whole movie devolves into collages of photographs, real-life footage, and vibrant bursts of color.

It’s weirdly daring. Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious projects are kaleidoscopic mashups of cynicism and naked emotion. On paper, it’s all too earnest to work. But each time I watch any of Hertzfeldt’s more recent projects, I’m overwhelmed by how much I grow to care about what is ultimately a stick figure with a hat, a stick figure voiced by a child, or a stick figure who’s the deteriorating clone of another stick figure. World of Tomorrow Episode Two doesn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of Hertzfeldt’s earlier work, or even of its more novel predecessor, but that’s only disappointing because Hertzfeldt has lately fallen into a pattern of outdoing himself every time, even as he’s more or less been mining the same territory, to different effects, for his entire career.

What’s new and especially funny about the World of Tomorrow shorts is that they’re premised on a fear of death that seems to eat us alive. We’re still the consumerist, tech-loving, evolutionarily interstitial dweebs we always were, but this time, we’ve at least put that faith in science and capital to substantial use. The World of Tomorrow shorts are about the folly of wanting to live forever. You, of course, cannot—but clones of you (the idea goes) can, and the sum of you can continue to persist throughout time by simply uploading the memories of previous versions of yourself into each successive copy. These are movies about the futility of life and the folly of wanting to live forever. Imagine thinking a scheme like this could work—imagine thinking that the way to cheat death is to live on as data. Then again, maybe that’s easy to imagine: This is the Black Mirror era. Hertzfeldt’s genius is in successfully exploring how it would feel to be the product of that data: to know, as a clone, that your memories aren’t yours. “I am proud of my sadness because it means I am more alive,” says an Emily clone in World of Tomorrow. By the time of the sequel, when we’re not even dealing with a proper clone but an incompletely uploaded backup copy, this is all the more poignant.

The World of Tomorrow shorts are, taken together, some of the most satisfying science fiction in recent memory—and combined, they run less than 40 minutes. That should be a lesson to an industry that keeps wanting to overinvest in bombast at the expense of giving artists the room to explore more complicated, sensational, invigorating ideas, to say nothing of an industry that can barely seem to manage telling a good story in two and a half hours. On the other hand, Hertzfeldt’s work exemplifies going it alone; it makes sense that Hollywood wouldn’t follow. And it makes sense that an artist so concerned with skewering our contemporary addictions and the deadening ease with which we all seem to give up being individuals would of course prefer it that way. What the World of Tomorrow shorts remind us, besides the fact that cloning programs really seem to suck, is that big ideas can lurk in the smallest places, as shorts, memes, and other viral fare seem increasingly poised to show. World of Tomorrow isn’t merely about the future: It’s a product of it.