Any number of superlatives have been hurled at Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow” — this critic listed the 16-minute short as one of the 10 greatest films of the 21st Century — but perhaps the highest compliment it’s received is that nobody ever really asked for a sequel. Well, maybe that’s not true, maybe Hertzfeldt has actually spent the last two years being hounded by fans who wanted more of a movie they loved, but I’ve watched the original more times than is medically advisable, and the thought never occurred to me.
That’s because “World of Tomorrow” is a truly perfect thing, an immaculate eruption of ideas that’s contained within a closed loop of continuous delight (click here to rent it right now). Conceived as an excuse for Hertzfeldt to teach himself the basics of digital animation, written around unscripted recordings of his four-year-old niece, and ultimately nominated for (and robbed of) an Oscar, the short tells the story of an oblivious little girl named Emily Prime who’s visited by a time-traveling adult clone of herself and spirited away on a whirlwind tour of our species’ mordantly hilarious future.
On the surface, it’s just a disarming pair of stick figures wandering through colorful bursts of jagged computer imagery. One of them talks about falling in love with a moon rock and growing so lonely that she can hear death; the other draws a triangle. And yet, by the time the duo arrives back where they started, their circular adventure through time and space has somehow resolved into an unspeakably profound meditation on the preciousness of the present. “Now is the envy of all of the dead.” What more could there possibly be to say after that?
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Quoth Emily Prime: “You have to sit down, okay?”
If “World of Tomorrow” was a journey outwards to the furthest reaches of thought, “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” is an epic voyage inward, a dizzying spin down the rabbit hole of the human subconscious. A true sequel in every sense of the word, this second chapter is bigger, longer, and a lot more complicated than the original. The ingeniously knotted timeline is easy enough to follow the first time through — fatalism has its perks — but multiple viewings are required to appreciate the full intricacy of Hertzfeldt’s narrative, which draws a half-dozen concentric halos around a story that ultimately stands still (a description like that should make this point self-evident, but don’t even think about watching “Episode Two” without having seen the previous one).
I’m not sure I could spoil it if I tried, but the film’s 22 minutes are impossibly dense with incredible things to discover, so this review will just stick to the basics. “The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” begins a lot like the first one, with Emily Prime minding her own business and living in the moment; she’s talking to herself as she draws on the floor, and it takes all of three seconds to realize that Hertzfeldt’s niece (Winona Mae) is still cinema’s greatest source of children’s dialogue, inadvertent or otherwise. You can probably guess what happens next: “HELLO, EMILY.”
Once again, Emily is visited by a third-generation clone of herself (animator Julia Pott, expanding upon the affectless — but singularly affecting — voice performance she delivered in “World of Tomorrow”). Well, technically, this isn’t a third-generation clone, but an incomplete backup copy of a third generation clone. She was conceived as an empty vessel for Emily’s consciousness, but the Earth exploded and eradicated her bloodline before the transfer could be completed, essentially leaving her as a human-shaped hard drive who’s been deprived any of the data she was supposed to inherit (“I was next in line to be Emily, but now I am no one”). So she’s done what any of us would do: Traveled some 200 years back in time to replace her mind with a copy of the original. That process takes us into the psychic depths of the clone’s half-formed self, a grim and wonderful place full of landmarks like the Bog of Realism and a handful of other molten landscapes that vaguely resemble the cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.” Oh, also, the neural network being used for the mind-meld is malfunctioning. Oops.
The circumstances may have changed a bit, but “World of Tomorrow” fans will feel right at home with the two main characters, who continue to be such exquisite comic foils for each other that everything around them feels like gravy on top. The back-up clone reprises her role as our monotone tour guide through a graveyard of memories, offering helpful pearls of wisdom like “we all cling to the same flickering windows in the infinite darkness” as Emily Prime runs around pointing at flowers. The back-up has mild men-tuhl duhteerioration and suffers from some difficulty controlling her emotions. There’s a “six” scrawled into her forehead for reasons that will eventually be explained in the most heartrending fashion. It has something to do with the film’s rather pointed subtitle.
About that. The rhythms and tones of this “Episode Two” might be familiar, but “Episode Two” is no mere retread (this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that its creator once devoted three shorts to a despondent stick figure named Bill, and each of those episodes were equally essential). It is still all too easy to get lost in memories, but this time around Hertzfeldt is more eager to help us find our way back to the moment at hand, to help us find our way back to ourselves. And he might actually know how to do it. While “The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” is seriously critical of the systems and frameworks that encourage us to draw inside the lines, and while that process predictably involves a few amusing swings at social media (we are all memory tourists, now), you shouldn’t be fooled by the subtitle. This isn’t Sartre — Hertzfeldt is a lot more hopeful than that. Other people’s thoughts are only a burden when they stop you from appreciating your own.
Sure, the Earth is going to explode, and everyone on it is going to die. Neither Emily nor any of her clones (nor any of their incomplete backups) is ever going to try and nip that in the bud. But both chapters of the (ongoing!?) “World of Tomorrow” saga are considerably less interested in preventing the future than they are in preserving the present. As Emily Prime reminds us with every line, kids are the only people who can really live in the moment, the only people who aren’t too busy looking forward or thinking back. We can never be kids again, even if we travel 200 years into the past and copy the consciousnesses of our younger selves. So how do we not take our time for granted in a world that seems hellbent on making it easier to do just that — in a world where our infinite selves are only making us feel more alone?
“The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” finds its two very different Emilys wandering through an incredibly complex soundscape of symphonies and special effects in search of someone who can never be found; last time around, Emily’s clone was looking for a certain memory, and this time her clone’s backup copy is effectively looking for a person. Not herself, but someone else. Someone who was designed to be the same, but naturally became something new, and made the both of them more beautiful for that.
In a world when both the past and the future are both at our fingertips, people are spending less time in the present than ever before. And yet, despite our best efforts to convince ourselves otherwise, now is all we have. Everyone belongs to a blip in the universe, this is ours, and it’s defined by the people with whom we share it. It’s not “how lucky we are to be alive right now,” but rather “how lucky we are to be alive at the same time.” By the end of “Episode Two,” a convincing case has been made that being a clone isn’t better, that our differences are what makes life worth living. Hell isn’t other people, hell is being stuck inside yourself. Hertzfeldt opens a tiny escape hatch, and you should use it if you can.
Blisteringly funny, deeply touching, and endlessly quotable, “World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” will make you better equipped to live life, and more prepared to accept death. It might only be 22 minutes long, but what more could you possibly want from a movie? What more could there possibly be to say after that?
I have no idea, but Don Hertzfeldt might.
“World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts” premiered at Fantastic Fest 2017 after an Oscar-qualifying run in Los Angeles. It will presumably be released later this year.