Anyone who went to middle school in the mid-2000s has at least a passing familiarity with the work of Don Hertzfeldt. He was the cartoonist behind “Rejected,” a short collection of advertisements created for the Family Learning Channel and Johnson & Mills that follow his supposed spiral into insanity due to creative stagnation. The peak of its popularity marked a truly strange time in American history when the best way to make middle schoolers laugh was to loudly declare that your anus was bleeding (although, honestly that would probably still make middle schoolers laugh, even without the cartoon for context). In case you missed it:
And that is more or less the caliber of humor that I thought I was in for when I first spied Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” on Netflix. I was expecting sixteen minutes of gruesome, avant garde nostalgia for my middle school days and an uncomfortable reminder that 13 year olds are terrible (as if one could forget).
I was so pleased to be wrong.
World of Tomorrow is many things crammed into a very small package. The plot surrounds a little girl named Emily (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four year old niece, Winona) receiving a communication from a third generation clone of herself 227 years in the future (where looking at video screens that show people looking at video screens is how most people spend their days). The Emily clone brings Emily (or “Emily Prime”) to the future and uses the “outernet” to show Emily Prime some of her memories from the melancholy future, as well as deliver some advice.
One of my favorite things about World of Tomorrow is that despite a runtime of sixteen minutes it manages to cram in enough cool sci-fi concepts for twenty Neill Blomkamp films. Solar powered Moon robots, a brainless clone on display at a museum, uploading consciousness to a cube, immortality through cloning, and a shapeshifting cyclopean alien/love interest named Simon.
The stark contrast between the main characters is the most striking part of “World.” For the duration of the film the Emily clone speaks in a sad, monotonous tone while telling of the gloomy future, heartbreak she has suffered, and the importance of being thankful for the present. While the voiceover of Emily Prime is entirely audio that was recorded while Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona, was drawing and playing, which creates an innocent, uncomprehending disinterest in the fantastic events unfolding around her. The characters, one deliberate and sad, while the other, playful and bubbly make it hard to tell at any given time whether you should be laughing or crying.
It’s perhaps hardest to tell when the Emily clone falls in love with and has her heart broken by a moon-rock, a fuel pump, and an alien named Simon, which plays like a joke while it’s happening. But the Emily clone’s advice to Emily Prime reframes the joke when she says: “It is a sad life, and it is a long life. You will feel a deep longing for something you cannot quite remember.”
World of Tomorrow is a complex and thoughtful little sci-fi film. Maybe I feel that way especially, because it is so different from my expectations, but either way I’d recommend it. Watch it twice, once as a sad story about a woman seeking something in herself that she was born without, and again as a silly story about a little girl having a time travel adventure.