Once upon a time there was a four-year-old girl named Emily who had an English accent and liked playing with toy cars. Do you like her cars? She was just a stick figure with pigtails and a yellow triangle for a torso, but her extraordinary life rippled through the cosmos in a seemingly limitless number of strange directions for centuries after it was over. And possibly also before it began.
Of course, certain wrinkles in the fabric of space-time make it hard to say for sure when either of those things really happened. All we know is that Emily was visited by a third-generation adult clone of herself at the beginning of Don Hertzfeldt’s beloved 2015 short “World of Tomorrow,” and spirited away on a whirlwind tour of the hilariously fucked up digital future that awaited her and all of the various back-up Emilys into which she would dump her consciousness after her body stopped working.
It was a future shaped by the grotesque horrors that had resulted from humanity’s various attempts at life extension: Consumer-grade time travel that glitched people into space, mentally deteriorated clones who fell in love with inanimate objects, solar-powered moon robots who were cursed to keep chasing after the sunlight forever and coped with their pain by sending depressive poetry back to the Earthlings who programmed them. By the time Emily Prime (Hertzfeldt’s surreptitiously recorded niece) and her maybe homicidal adult clone (animator Julia Pott) arrived back where they began just 16 minutes later, their circular odyssey along the fringes of what’s to come had somehow resolved into a profound meditation on the infinite possibility of the present and how much of our lives we forfeit to what could be or what might have been. “Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
It’s a notion that Hertzfeldt deepened and expanded upon with 2017’s brilliant “World of Tomorrow Episode II: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts,” which found Emily Prime and an incomplete back-up clone plonking around the wasteland of the latter’s half-formed self-consciousness with the same morbid wonder that the first installment zinged through outer space. It told an implosive story of identity and confabulation and memory tourists — a story about holding on to some precious essence of ourselves even when it feels like the universe is trying to dissolve us together, or finding one when it feels like you’re a clone in search of someone to be. Or, you know, when that’s literally what you are. “Episode II” played like a distorted mirror image of “World of Tomorrow” in a way that made the two short films seem like a perfect, self-contained couplet.
Hertzfeldt could have left it there, secure in the knowledge that he’d created one of the defining sci-fi series of this young century. But there was no way he was just going to pack up his toys and call it a day after mashing “The Jetsons” and “Brazil” into the kind of digital sandbox that someone could play in until the Earth blew up without ever growing bored of the existential crises it allowed them to imagineer along the way.
The Emilys are inexhaustibly entertaining characters, and though “Episode II” was another closed loop of a tale, its non-linear narrative left people reeling with ideas about what might happen to this little girl and her ever-expanding army of brain-damaged adult clones in a future where even the most ordinary people could echo through eternity. If Carl Sagan was right to say we’re all made of star-stuff, how beautiful and deranged might that actually look like on a long enough timeline — one knotted by time travel, and littered with people whose origins are as close and irrational as the square root of a prime number?
And so we arrive at “World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime,” a miniature 34-minute epic that stands on its own even as it retrofits the previous installments with new layers that make them seem even more poignant in hindsight. That title alone is probably enough to give Hertzfeldt fans some indication as to where this chapter might take us, but “Episode Three” opens with a flurry of sight gags so lucid and funny that series neophytes aren’t at any risk of getting lost in space; the laughter should be enough to localize most people, and everyone else can rest easy in the knowledge that the second half of the movie comes with its own flow charts.
A stick figure named David floats through the traffic of deep space on a cramped ship that’s barely any larger than his body; surrounded by the infinite wonder and mystery of the cosmos, he busies himself with a little online shopping on his neural display (“Why not??” reads the tagline for a pair of human gills). Suddenly a message appears — a memory that was buried deep in his subconscious as a child and time-locked until the invention of interstellar travel. It’s an Emily, and she needs David to travel to a remote alien planet in order to retrieve a beacon that contains some very important information. Compelled by the déjà vu of making contact with a stranger he recognizes as if she were his own shadow, David wordlessly heeds Emily’s request.
There’s only one problem: The relatively primitive computer that runs his brain doesn’t have enough memory to handle a giant message from the future, and so David has to continually delete basic motor functions as he makes his way to whatever it is Emily left behind for him to find. Hilarity ensues. The first half of “Episode Three” might be the single funniest stretch of Hertzfeldt’s immaculate filmography, as David’s gradual debilitation marries the mortal anxiety of “It’s Such a Beautiful Day” with the cartoon hyper-violence of “Rejected” in an ever-darkening crescendo of delectable chef’s kiss moments. It’s no surprise that Hertzfeldt distills the tragicomic absurdity of being alive in 2020 better than any other filmmaker has thus far (after all, he’s been doing it for the last two decades).
But it’s what happens after David is able to download the rest of Emily’s message that makes “Episode Three” such a vital and unexpected addition to this tantalizingly open-ended saga. The trail of where and when David goes from there quickly knot into Hertzfeldt’s most intricate narrative, as Emily’s usual exposition gives way to the “World of Tomorrow” series’ first stretch of action-driven storytelling (but not before Pott delivers another of the peerlessly droll voice performances that give these movies their malformed heart, the “Summer Camp Island” creator twirling from sanguine to sociopath and back again as she prattles off dystopic jargon like a psychic college professor with brain worms).
Hertzfeldt junkies will delight at how David Prime’s absent destinations weave through the series’ previous chapters and answer “La Jetée”-like questions about its lore that you may never have thought to ask; other cinematic universes could learn a thing or two from how seamlessly this movie is tailored to fit its broader mythology. Everyone — newcomers included — can Marvel at the elaborate time crisis that Hertzfeldt is able to execute. It’s farcically complicated stuff that wends its way through the space between time, touches upon the grandfather paradox, and builds to a shootout that puts “Tenet” to shame with just a handful of stick figures, but the human logic of the heart-stopping final beat is clear enough that you won’t need a subreddit to explain the goosebumps on your skin (the film’s rich soundscape helps seal the deal, while Taylor Barron’s eye-popping composite work allows this to become Hertzfeldt’s most tactile work so far).
And the “World of Tomorrow” series’ emotional undertow remains as powerful as ever. Hertzfeldt has always used Vonnegut-esque gallows humor to lower our defenses and make us laugh at things that might otherwise be too dark to even think about, but “Episode Three” — in its own beautiful, demented way — clarifies how that confrontationally mordant streak allows the Emilys to show us an ugly kind of hope worth keeping. The (almost) six years since the original “World of Tomorrow” premiered at Sundance have done so much to challenge the idea that “now is the envy of all of the dead,” and yet Hertzfeldt’s clones invariably twist the coldness of the universe and the constant threat of oblivion that comes with it into something perversely life-affirming.
At a time when technocratic futurism is pulling us forward while authoritarian regimes are holding us back, there’s never been so much nauseating currency to the axiom that we should all strive to “live in the moment.” But Hertzfeldt knows that’s easier said than done. For all of the bittersweet koans that litter his films, there’s nothing prescriptive about his work. The original “World of Tomorrow” even ends with the Emily clone instructing Emily Prime on how to live her best life, but — as any time-traveler should know — she might have already lived it.
“Time is a prison of living things,” David tells us, and like any prison, we are always looking for a way out. The impulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder. And yet, time is also a conduit for the abstract consequences that living things leave behind like messages in a bottle: Moments and memories that float through the universe on butterfly wings, and are beautiful not for how they remain intact, but rather for how they’re sublimated into the star-stuff of a world that wouldn’t be the same without them. Hertzfeldt’s open-ended fable (don’t you dare call it a “trilogy”) is able to have so much fun with the fact that we’re all going to die horrible deaths one day because it’s rooted in the belief that we’ve always been immortal.
That Emily Prime doesn’t appear in “Episode Three” only makes it all the more obvious how she’s hiding in the margins of every frame — how even the least assuming of people (much like the profound short films that might be made about them) can pinball through space-time in ways that no one can imagine. Well, almost no one. “Death is not a destination,” Hertzfeldt offers, “it is the absence of one.” I’ve never been more excited to see what detours he takes us on next.
“World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime” is now available to rent on Vimeo.