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“World Of Tomorrow’s” third chapter revels in unexpected destinations

Don Hertzfeldt’s latest addition to his humanist sci-fi series is now available on Vimeo.

“Oh look, it opens up” is the first line of animator Don Hertzfeldt’s humanist sci-fi masterpiece World Of Tomorrow (2015). The now-three-part series has followed those five words like a thesis. In mid-October, Hertzfeldt released the latest volume, World Of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations Of David Prime to Vimeo after the pandemic spoiled plans for a theatrical run that would’ve packaged the first three entries as a whole. Instead, somewhat fittingly, we’re left with another fragment of an ongoing story that is, increasingly, exploratory.

Five years ago, World Of Tomorrow introduced a futuristic world of stick figures, a dangerous form of discounted time travel that’s left behind the scattered corpses of millions, extensive cloning practices, and the endearing, deeply complicated central relationship of Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s then-four-year-old niece Winona Mae) and the future variations of herself (who are all voiced by Hertzfeldt’s contemporary Julia Pott). While that logline might seem conceptually heady, the searching, startlingly melancholic plot benefits from a lively counterbalance in Mae’s Emily Prime, a very young girl whose penchant for irreverent asides and insistent cheerfulness keeps the first two entries from buckling under a staggering amount of existential weight.

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After essentially turning the first two installments of the series into two-handers, in an unexpected turn of events, Mae and Emily Prime are nearly entirely absent from World Of Tomorrow Episode Three.

In the first short film, World Of Tomorrow, the Emily who’s first shown visiting Emily Prime is a third-generation clone from 227 years into the future. In World Of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2017), the plot fixates on the sixth back-up copy of an Emily clone (identifiable via the 6 sketched into her forehead) while lightly involving several other Emily clones. And World Of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations Of David Prime bestows a tremendous amount of narrative power onto a ninth backup copy of a clone of Emily, while ceding the plot to World Of Tomorrow’s only other core character, named David.

Throughout the series, only four names are mentioned: Emily, Simon (a friendly monster and unlikely romantic partner who enjoys a brief stretch of screen time before being left to a forlorn abandonment), Felicia (who turns out to be an Emily clone), and David. In David’s first appearance, he’s a museum exhibit: a brainless, intubated life form who’s beloved by visitors and, ultimately, removed without fanfare after passing away. At some point, it’s revealed that a future Emily falls deeply in love with a David clone who was born of the same source as the David exhibit, underscoring Hertzfeldt’s gift for unexpectedly cutting tragicomedy that’s anchored by unfailing empathy. (It comes as no surprise that the filmmaker considers himself a “cynical optimist”).

Emily and David’s generational longing for each other is established throughout World Of Tomorrow’s first two installments but overtakes the story entirely in this third installment. Throughout all three, the initial version of David that a version of Emily falls in love with is shown unexpectedly dying, collapsing to the floor as the two share an intimate moment at an art gallery.

David’s death is profound and inexplicable, hanging a heaviness over the proceedings that plays a central role in the collective of Emilys’ centuries-long navigation of grief. In a particularly striking monologue from World Of Tomorrow, Emily’s third-generation clone details it in heartbreaking fashion: “I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss, but sometimes, I sit in a chair late at night and quietly feel very bad…. I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive.” In Episode Two, the frantic sixth-backup Emily clone pointedly rejects interacting with the literal glimmers of hope she’s cast away in “the bog of realism,” finding them too painful, some undoubtedly containing remnants of inherited memories of David. In Episode Three, the ninth-backup clone of Emily is more resolute and travels through time to signal to the original David that the future might benefit from a moment of intervention.

In the path to that momentous moment, Hertzfeldt spends the bulk of Episode Three in world-building mode, effectively satirizing our reliance on media by positing downloadable skills and functions (walking, math, basic cargo inventory, advanced swimming, etc.) as a logical endpoint. Everything is set into motion when Emily’s ninth-backup clone travels through time to an extremely young David Prime with an urgent plea, promising a memory retention of the moment that will arrive at a practical time later.

The path Emily charts out for David requires an inordinate amount of David’s memory space, leading him down a near-ruinous course of skill and function deletions as he receives Emily’s download in small portions, complete with sponsored content and pop-up ads. When David’s Emily-led journey reaches its desired destination, World Of Tomorrow unveils what may be its most extraordinary sequence, turning both Episode Three and the series as a whole on its head.

While Hertzfeldt’s rightly received the bulk of the glowing acclaim for what appears to have supplanted It’s Such A Beautiful Day (2012) as his masterpiece, it’d be a mistake to overlook Pott’s voice acting, which has grown increasingly layered with each successive entry. It’s difficult to convey a complex internal world through a character whose defining characteristic is detachment, but Pott imbues each Emily clone with a quiet, devastating realism that speaks volumes, especially in the series’—and the character’s—most restrained moments. Pott also benefits from a seemingly innate understanding of Hertzfeldt’s material, having explored the theoretical functions of time and accelerated neurosis via her own work on Cartoon Network-turned-HBO Max’s excellent Summer Camp Island (2018- ).

It’s not hyperbole to say that if World Of Tomorrow were to end now, it’d be in the conversation of the greatest (short) film trilogies of all time. Thankfully, Hertzfeldt has expressed an intention to continue the series, potentially releasing the ensuing installments in bulk alongside a collaborative production crew, rather than spending years working intensively in isolation. While that’s definitely something to look forward to, he has provided us with more than enough to celebrate and reflect on in the now, while we have the time to live broadly.

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