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The premise for Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow (which is available on Netflix Instant) is deceptively simple. It’s a story about two Emilys. The first, Emily Prime (voiced by Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece), is a moppet from our near future, who receives a call from her distant future on an oversized computer console. The woman contacting her is a third-generation clone of herself – Emily III (voiced by Julia Pott) – created via a futuristic fad in which people produce their own doubles and upload memories into them; a feeble attempt at allowing their consciousness to live forever. However, over two hundred years from when Emily Prime answers the phone, the world is about to end, and Emily III is reaching out to her progenitor in order to inform her of what she has to look forward to.
OK, so maybe it’s not that simple of a premise. Nevertheless, World of Tomorrow is still wish fulfillment for anyone who has ever wondered what it’d be like to go back in time and bestow the gift of knowledge upon your younger, more ignorant (or merely inexperienced) self. Only Emily III isn’t coming back to share some sort of cautionary tale. Instead, she acts as a tour guide – the stick figure Ghost of Christmas Future for Hertzfeldt’s crude yet intricately designed universe. Walking hand-in-hand with the bag of DNA that spawned her, Emily III takes Emily Prime step-by-step through an abridged recap of two centuries. Hertzfeldt has said that World of Tomorrow was inspired in part by old science magazines and short films that predicted what inventions would be developed after humans perfected flying cars. In his vision, the need for nostalgia and self-preservation is what overtakes the overwhelming majority of humanity.
There's a texture to the world Hertzfeldt creates that's oddly tangible, even as his squiggly outlines border on becoming rude. Emily Prime's space is stark and blank, filled with only a computer, whose gut juts out like an obese uncle's. However, once she's transported to the "Outernet" (a vast, inhabitable expanse of information) by Emily III, colors swirl and pulse, able to be changed on command. Emily Prime's interactions with this foreign environment help ease the viewer into the universe Hertzfeldt scribbles and splashes digital paint upon, her unadulterated joy at having any semblance of control utterly infectious.
Animation often creates a distancing effect - keeping you constantly aware that what you're watching was generated by a pen or a computer. World of Tomorrow is no different, though Hertzfeldt's desire for the viewer to share in Emily Prime's literal childish joy of discovery allows us emotional entrance, while still letting him employ his abstract aesthetic sensibilities. As we dive deeper and deeper down this futuristic rabbit hole, we bear witness to images not too unlike our own reality - clones staring at screens that project images of themselves gazing at other reflective electronic surfaces. Meanwhile, their memories are uploaded into boxes for conservancy. This familiarity only helps strengthen the exploratory bond we share with the goofy tot, and the guide extracted from her DNA.
One of the most popular art exhibits to emerge during the earliest days of Emily III is "David". Stationed in a translucent tube in a museum, the boy floats and ages in stasis as people travel from miles around just to be in his presence. Some eat lunch in front of the captured man. Others whisper things to him at night after everyone else is gone. In a sense, he's not so much a display as he is a fleshy block, filling a void for those who cannot become whole with those around them. Like all else, David withers and fades, disintegrating before his admirers; the horrible fate of all who enjoy the gift of life.
The loves that fill the span of Emily III evolve with the years. Her first infatuation is with a rock, which she finds rather attractive, yet emotionally unfulfilling. After her stint supervising robots that rhythmically trudge across the moon's surface (while simultaneously churning out depressed poetry), she finds comfort in a fuel pump. Once her duties on the next distant rock are complete, she leaves the industrial instrument behind, though the robots continue to move back and forth, their own usefulness as defined by their creators utterly exhausted. Within a few short minutes, Hertzfeldt perfectly captures how each relationship helps to accentuate who we are as people during specific instances in our existence, and how our attractions transmorph over time. Though they're both inanimate objects, a fuel pump owns the complexity of moving parts that a rock simply cannot possess. Following these inanimate objects is a monster born from an egg she discovers in a cave, which follows her around saying “unintelligible things.” They fall in love, but Emily III yearns for interaction with people, and leaves him.
Emily III then relays how she met, married and buried her husband, an older clone who was a descendant of David. He dies suddenly, just as many others do, leaving Emily III alone to sit in a chair and gaze upon the times they shared, good and bad. There's one specific memory of his that she frequently revisits (over 6,000 times) – a descent down a flight of stairs where she/he finds a plant, its frond flapping in the wind. Yet with time, she understands that the pain his death left her with only helps to define her as a person, and should not be viewed as a burden. "I am very proud of my sadness," Emily III states, "because it means I am more alive." This is a sentiment that will be lost on the tiny, giggly adolescent, though perhaps fractions of the interaction will inform her upcoming choices.
The traversing of memory is not the only form of time travel the clones engage in. They've also discovered a way to physically navigate the channels of time. Emily III has charted her own path through the past, in order to extract a recollection from her original self's mind. Using what can be described as a microwave speed trap ray gun that sucks hyper-specific personal minutiae from Emily Prime's brain, we only hear what is being removed via a trance-like repetition of words the little girl utters. "This is me and mommy walking", she says, over and over again. We don't know why this is important outside of what we project upon the muttering from our own memories: a basic bit of universality achieved through sparse non-detail.
Hertzfeldt's film concludes with Emily III bestowing a monologue's worth of wisdom upon her former self. "Do not lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead." Perhaps a morbidly uplifting spin on greeting card wisdom delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, yet that does not render the speech any less affecting. Physical time travel is not the only form that presents clear and present danger to those who engage in it recklessly (many clones' bodies are shot into space, the planet's core, or into prehistory). For all of World of Tomorrow's impressionistic futurism, the movie's message is timeless. Live in the now and relish the experiential wisdom you gain from keeping your eyes ahead, instead of over your shoulder. Nothing is creeping up on you, except for the decisions you cannot alter.