Science Fiction permeates a ton of our popular culture at the moment. If you read a movie website this weekend at least three of the stories you would read would be about how great Ex Machina is, how absolutely enormous the reach of Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to end up being, or how cool the new Tomorrowland trailer looks. What once was the purview of only nerds and dweebs is now ubiquitous in our daily lives. That’s not to say, though, that an absolute gem doesn’t occasionally pass by with lesser public fanfare–which is exactly what happened with the incredibly moving new short film World of Tomorrow from acclaimed animator Don Hertzfeldt.
Don Hertzfeldt is one of the most well-respected and influential animators of the past couple of decades. You may not have heard of him, but you’re probably at least aware of his work, or work directly influenced by him–like a lot of the original programming on Adult Swim (see Hunger Force, Aqua Teen). Hertzfeldt has several movies already under his belt including It’s Such a Beautiful Day, and the Academy Award nominated film, Rejected. Most people, though, might recognize him for his contribution to a couch gag on The Simpsons. Maybe you remember this number:
As you might be able to tell, Hertzfeldt has a very unique style.
His brand of animation is alive and well in his latest short film, World of Tomorrow. As with most of his previous output, this film also deals with an enormous variety of themes, and all with a touch so deft as to be astounding. The short is about a little girl named Emily who is contacted from centuries into the future by an older clone of herself. This ‘3rd Generation Emily’ tells ‘Emily Prime’ (the little girl) all about the future that she inhabits and leads her through a number of different memories. In this future people often clone themselves and have their consciousness transferred once their old body is too feeble, promoting a kind of immortality. Others have their consciousness uploaded onto a cube, where they live forever. There seems to be little interaction between people as most spend their time on the “Outernet” or watching viewscreens.
As the older clone Emily leads Emily-Prime through a sad web of memories and visions, Emily-Prime pays little attention to the seemingly inherent sadness surrounding them and is instead filled with wonder at all of the sights, as any child would be. The film is short (clocking in at 16 minutes!) and too dense with incredible imagery and philosophy for anyone to want to hear a play by play of the entire plot, but suffice to say it is very affecting (It’s also very funny at points!).
In fact, the sheer number of truly affecting themes in this short are incredible. Sci-fi has long been lauded for its ability to explore facets of the human condition in ways that other genres cannot, but the scale of what Hertzfeldt does here is truly incredible. In the 16 beautiful minutes that he animated, the film touches poignantly on love, the passage of time, memory, art, immortality, identity, emotion, death, consciousness, economic disparity, and technological detachment–and that’s just a quick list I was able to jot down during my second viewing. It never feels as though any of the subjects are rushed, or thrown in, either. Each theme is interwoven beautifully into the story, the animation, and the sonic background.
Each of these components I just listed play an important role as well and seem to have been shaped by the way that Hertzfeldt set about making this film. According to the intro on the film’s page, World of Tomorrow began as an experiment with his initial foray into digital animation after years of using physical film. As he began to experiment and a plot formed around his animation, he spent time recording playing and drawing with his 4 year old niece. Using these various recordings as dialogue for Emily Prime, Hertzfeldt shaped the narrative around them in an incredible way. His ability to take and shape this various, iterative pieces and form them into something this coherent, consistent, and good is a true measure of Hertzfeldt’s talent.
If you’ve watched the short though, or any of the other work mentioned above, maybe coherent wasn’t the first word that would come to your mind. It is, after all, abstract art. The definition of the word abstraction is, “the quality of dealing with ideas rather than events” and for the coherence of ideas and themes, World of Tomorrow is an achievement. Animated, abstract short film maybe not be blowing away box office records, may not net a week’s worth of late night appearances, or make it anywhere outside the festival circuit (the film did win awards at SXSW and Sundance), but one comes along now and then that can really transcend genre and speak to everyone. If you’re willing to give it a try, World of Tomorrow might just give you a sense of wonder too.
(World of Tomorrow is available on-demand exclusively on Vimeo. Can be found here.)
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