‘World of Tomorrow’ bursts with imagination, wit, insight and humanity

By Nate Taskin

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(Official Tacoma Film Festival Facebook Page)

“Perfection” is a nebulous concept that always implies hyperbole on behalf of the critic, so forgive me when I say that “World of Tomorrow” is pretty much perfect. Perfect in the sense that it fulfills everything a film aspires toward: Perfect writing. Perfect direction. Perfect animation. Perfect voice acting. Perfect theme. Perfect tone. Perfect emotions.

It’s only 17 minutes long, yet I wish it went on for two hours. At the same time, it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. Impressive for a film whose lead characters are stick figures. Granted, they’re stick figures who pulsate with more humanity in their two-dimensional scrawled arms than most live-action actors do with their entire bodies.

“World of Tomorrow,” the brainchild of animator Don Hertzfeldt, focuses on a little girl from the near future named Emily – or “Emily Prime,” as the film denotes her. As she frolics around a stark white room, she approaches a mysterious control panel. She fiddles with the buttons and the control panel reveals itself as some sort of video-communicative device. Another woman, a third generation clone of Emily Prime, contacts her.

Emily Clone explains to Emily Prime how her clone came into being: In the next two centuries, the upper crust of society will upload their consciences into their doubles in order to preserve their memories and achieve immortality. Nevertheless, Emily Clone continues, these exercises will prove futile. Exactly 227 years from when Emily Prime first activates the control panel, the world shall end in a massive meteor strike. All Emily Clone can do is provide the original Emily with a blueprint of how her life will unfold across the Earth’s final few centuries.

Everyone obsesses over the past in the future envisioned by “World of Tomorrow.” Since robots have rendered most work unnecessary, humans spend most of their time accessing old memories, to the point where new memories just consist of the access of old ones in a continuous loop. So desperate are they to understand themselves, they forget how to actually live.

That image of clones watching clones in an infinite loop epitomizes Hertzfeldt, where he combines humor, absurdity and pathos into a single frame. Like the superb “It’s Such a Beautiful Day,” Hertzfeldt’s previous feature, “World of Tomorrow” mixes a morbid sense of humor with a resigned sense of fatalism, though one should never confuse it with outright nihilistic despair. Like Kurt Vonnegut before him, Hertzfeldt finds humor in the horror and chaos and, instead of giving in to mopey cynicism, views the mayhem as cause for humanistic celebration.

Hertzfeldt’s then-four-year-old niece Winona Mae voices Emily Prime, and hers may be the greatest, most natural-sounding child performance in history – and perhaps the most unintentionally great performance as well, given how Hertzfeldt assembled her dialogue. None of Emily Prime’s lines are scripted. Hertzfeldt just recorded his niece as she drew her pictures and ran around her house. When Emily Prime says, “What is that? A monster?” in response to an alien she meets, Mae may have met that same alien inside her own head too.

Much like her voice actor, Emily Prime possesses an infinite capacity for joy and curiosity. Her life is uncomplicated and her problems easily resolve themselves. Free from worry, her world of tomorrow is that of today.

Emily Clone, with her dejected, monotone voice, can take no such comfort. She muses, in a manner both condescending and wistful, that Emily Prime’s generation must view the future’s technological innovations like magic, something long absent in her own universe. Her society, so obsessed with nostalgia and memory, has ground to a halt. She despairs not because there are no more worlds to discover, but because humanity has lost its desire for discovery.

The gorgeousness of the animation is difficult to put into words. Every frame is a treat for the eyes, from the yellowish haze of the time soup, the squiggly moon-robots, the flickering projections on a wall of “memory galleries,” the rainbows, the neon, the stark white and the jet-black. Don Hertzfeldt is a marvelous architect of lines, shapes and color.

Acerbic and weird and humane and mesmerizing, “World of Tomorrow,” in a perfect world, would be a serious candidate for the Academy Award for Best Picture, yet I suppose it’s a waste of time to engage in that petty politicking. Time claims us all, says Hertzfeldt, and everything shall wither away. Whether it comes in the shape of your immaculate cobblestone driveway, the quiche you’ve toiled over, or the relationship that you’ve put your naked heart and soul into, it will all disappear.

Even the Earth itself meets this fate, along with the galaxy it inhabits. Long after whatever last trace of life dies out, a barren planet shall orbit a burnt out star, only for it to soon crumble into nothingness. For this reason, we should rejoice in the phenomena we experience, however ephemeral these perceptions are. Hertzfeldt gazes into the abyss, yet instead of despair, he only offers a knowing smile.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]