“That is the thing, Emily Prime, you only appreciate the present when it is the past.”
In a future where we can live forever, transferring our consciousness from one empty clone body to another, we have the ability to almost cheat death and potentially live eternally; whether this time feels like heaven or hell matters on how we choose to live it. Despite the imaginative abstractions, World of Tomorrow, a sixteen-minute short film, deals with something more concrete and relatable than a “be careful what you wish for” fantasy.
Don Hertzfeldt’s latest masterpiece of experimental animation is such a subtly devastating film that it seems to defy the law of diminishing returns: unlike pizza or ice cream, the more you consume it, and the more you understand its meticulous details, the more it will obliterate you emotionally. Like Hertzfeld’s other masterwork, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, you’ll realize that you can feel for a minimalist, stick drawing; they’re more than just a few straight lines, but the embodiment of a regretful life vicariously reminiscing about the past.
There are two main characters in World of Tomorrow: Emily Prime, who appears to be about four-years-old, and her third clone who has come to visit her from 230 years in the future. After explaining the transferring of consciousness that Emily will go through in the future, clone Emily says, “Through this process you will hope to live forever.” Totally ignoring the prospect that humans have tried to harness since their inception, whether scientifically or through religion, Emily Prime is firmly planted in the moment forming new memories while clone Emily is trying to preserve old ones. The young girl’s response is astonishing–“I had lunch today.”
When immortality becomes the prime concern in this future, a vicious cycle is created in which people have descended into isolation from a distinct class divide and an inability to form new relationships. There is a scarily funny moment where clone Emily explains that her grandfather was poor and could only afford to have his consciousness uploaded into a box, where he exists with the ability to experience the new films and books she uploads for him. Alone in the cube where time passes faster than in the material world, he sends thousands of messages, one of which is read by Clone Emily: “Oh, oh God, oh God, oh my God, holy mother of God, oh, oh, oh, oh God.” As she reads this blatant cry for help with a mechanical, robotic voice, it’s obvious that the once idealistic young girl has become detached and jaded.
Both moments (the “I had lunch today” sequence, and the one with the grandfather in the cube) occur within the first few minutes of this mind-bogglingly dense sixteen minutes. The following portion walks through memories of a love affair with a rock, a blank clone’s stagnant life as a museum exhibit, and depressing poetry from machines that endlessly circle the moon. Hertzfeldt has crafted a sci-fi world unlike anything that has ever been put on the screen.
But perhaps the film’s most striking image comes midway through when clone Emily explains that in the future they are able to break apart atoms and look at the memories inside. When first implemented, people were able to look at the history of the universe, but after years and years the recordings infused have just become an endless loop of people looking at the images, who are looking at the people looking at the images, and so on.
World of Tomorrow is a film made up of un-linked memories with a clear thematic through-line. Freed from any storytelling conventions, Hertzfeldt crafts a vision of the future with more detail and depth than any feature length sci-fi in recent memory. World of Tomorrow blew my mind then cloned it and blew it again–ad infinitum. I’m endlessly trapped in the cycle of watching the film and playing it again on repeat.
This is a masterpiece.