World of Tomorrow Episode Three Review: The Best Sci-Fi Series of the 21st Century Goes Epic – IndieWire

Posted: October 10, 2020 at 8:01 am

Once upon a time there was afour-year-old girlnamed Emilywhohad an English accent andliked playing with toy cars.Do you like her cars?She was just a stick figure with pigtails and a yellow triangle for a torso, buther extraordinary liferippled through the cosmosin aseeminglylimitlessnumber of strange directionsforcenturies after it was over. And possibly also before it began.

Of course,certain wrinkles in the fabric of space-timemake it hardtosay for sure when either of those things really happened. All we know is that Emilywas visited by a third-generation adult clone of herself at thebeginning of DonHertzfeldtsbeloved 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 Emilysinto which she would dump her consciousness after her body stopped working.

It was a future shaped by the grotesque horrors that had resulted from humanitys 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 (Hertzfeldts 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 whats 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.

Its anotionthatHertzfeldtdeepened and expanded uponwith2017sbrilliantWorld of Tomorrow Episode II: The Burden of Other Peoples Thoughts, which found Emily Prime and an incompleteback-upclone plonking aroundthewasteland of thelattershalf-formed self-consciousnesswith the samemorbid wonder that the first installment zinged through outer space. Ittoldan implosivestory of identity and confabulation andmemory tourists a story about holding on tosome preciousessence ofourselves even whenit feels like the universe is trying to dissolve us together, or finding one when it feels like youre a clone in search of someone to be. Or, you know, when thats literally what you are.Episode II played like a distorted mirror image of World of Tomorrow in a way that made the twoshortfilms seem like a perfect, self-containedcouplet.


Hertzfeldt could have left it there, secure in the knowledge that hed 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 atale, its non-linearnarrativeleft people reeling with ideasabout what might happen to this little girl and her ever-expandingarmyofbrain-damagedadult clones in afuture where even the most ordinary peoplecouldecho through eternity.If Carl Sagan was right to saywere all made of star-stuff, how beautiful andderangedmightthat actually look like on a long enough timeline one knotted by time travel, andlittered with people whoseorigins are ascloseand irrationalas the square root ofa prime number?

And so we arrive at World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, aminiature34-minute epic thatstandson its owneven as itretrofitsthe previous installmentswith new layers that make them seem even morepoignantin 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 arent 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 Davidfloats through the traffic of deep space on a cramped ship thats barely any larger than his body; surrounded by the infinite wonder and mystery of the cosmos, he busies himself with a little online shoppingon his neural display(Why not?? reads the tagline for a pair of human gills).Suddenlyamessage appearsa memory that was buried deep in his subconscious as a child and time-lockeduntil the invention of interstellar travel. Its anEmily, and she needs David to travel to a remote alien planet in order to retrievea beacon that contains some very important information.Compelledby the dj vuofmaking contact with a stranger he recognizes as if she were his own shadow, Davidwordlesslyheeds Emilys request.

Theres only one problem: The relatively primitive computer that runs his brain doesnt 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 Hertzfeldts immaculate filmography, as Davids gradual debilitation marries the mortal anxiety of Its Such a Beautiful Day with the cartoon hyper-violence of Rejected in an ever-darkening crescendo of delectable chefs kiss moments. Its no surprise that Hertzfeldt distills the tragicomic absurdity of being alive in 2020 better than any other filmmaker has thus far (after all, hes been doing it for the last two decades).

But its what happens after David is able to download the rest of Emilys 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 Hertzfeldts most intricate narrative, as Emilys 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).

Hertzfeldtjunkies will delight at how David Primes absent destinationsweave through the series previous chapters and answer LaJete-like questions about its lore that you may never have thought to ask; other cinematic universes could learn a thing or two fromhow seamlessly this movie is tailored to fititsbroader mythology. Everyonenewcomers includedcan Marvel at the elaborate time crisis thatHertzfeldtis able to execute. Its farcically complicatedstuff thatwends its way throughthe space between time,touches uponthe grandfather paradox,and builds toashootoutthat puts Tenet to shame withjust a handful of stick figures, but thehumanlogic ofthe heart-stopping final beatis clear enoughthat youwontneed a subreddit to explain the goosebumps on your skin(the films rich soundscape helps seal the deal, while Taylor Barrons eye-popping composite work allows thisto becomeHertzfeldtsmost 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 Hertzfeldts 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, theres never been so much nauseating currency to the axiom that we should all strive to live in the moment. But Hertzfeldt knows thats easier said than done. For all of the bittersweet koans that litter his films, theres 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 arealways looking for a way out. Theimpulse to escape will never change, it will only grow weirder.And yet, time is also a conduit for the abstract consequences that living thingsleave behind like messages in a bottle: Moments and memories thatfloat through the universe on butterfly wings, andare beautiful not for how they remain intact, but rather for how theyresublimated intothe star-stuff of a world that wouldnt be the same without them.Hertzfeldtsopen-ended fable(dont you dare call it a trilogy)is able to have so muchfun with the fact that were all going to die horrible deaths one daybecause its rooted inthebeliefthat weve alwaysbeen immortal.

That Emily Prime doesnt appear in Episode Three only makes it all the more obvious how shes 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. Ive 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.

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