World of Tomorrow and the Copy-Pasted Brain

Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short film is the latest work of sci-fi to explore the idea of digitizing human consciousness.

Don Hertzfeldt / Bitter Films

It’s impressive that World of Tomorrow is one of the best films nominated for an Oscar this year given that it’s only 16 minutes long. It’s even more so considering that the movie is almost entirely exposition. Don Hertzfeldt’s animated short, which is now available on Netflix, is a beautifully told tale of sci-fi horror with the feel of a melancholy bedtime story. Its hero is a little girl named Emily who gets a phone call from her future self—sort of: The Emily calling from 227 years ahead is a clone, the third such copy made from a previous Emily and given her memories. Hers is a copy-pasted brain, and she has a long story to unravel.

World of Tomorrow is a wonder of ping-ponging dialogue: Clone Emily, in a monotone, describes the dystopian future to “Emily Prime” (voiced by the 4-year-old Winona Mae), who gleefully burbles childish nonsense in response to her future “self.” Hertzfeldt’s animation uses simple stick figures, but his Emily Prime dances around the screen with delight while her clone stands and regards her solemnly. His film posits a future where emotion has slowly slipped away as humans foolishly pursued immortality, but where feelings and warm memories are valued higher than anything.

The idea of the copy-pasted brain, and the moral quandaries that could stem from it, has enjoyed a quiet revival in sci-fi recently, with World of Tomorrow as the must-see standard-bearer. Hertzfeldt, whose work always tends towards the absurd, had never experimented with the genre before making this short, which was his first digitally produced film. As Emily and her clone drift through the “outernet,” the virtual reality through which all people in the future apparently communicate, the environment pops and crackles around them. But for all of his fantastical imagery, Hertzfeldt triumphs by focusing tightly on his protagonist’s emotions, which are seemingly haywire thanks to their being a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. “I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive,” the clone proclaims, while acknowledging that she has occasionally fallen in love with inanimate objects in the past.

It’s hard to say too much about World of Tomorrow without spoiling its delicate balance of world-building and surreal humor. But its central, hypothetical concept, that of transferring your mind to a new body or a computer, has long been debated within scientific and transhumanist communities. Emily Clone is something of a great-granddaughter to Emily Prime, who will give birth to her first clone, who then gives birth to the next one, and so on. But is she a separate entity altogether or just a continuation of Emily’s lifespan? This clone is strange and affectless, but certainly possesses pathos and consciousness. If humans create these “backups,” are we generating new life, or extending our own?

My colleague Conor Friedersdorf examined this vaguely horrifying idea from a socio-political point of view last year. It provokes so many questions—how would criminal justice function in such a world, especially if life was mostly lived within a computer and physical concerns were forgotten? How could we conceive of any human experience without the bounds of mortality? “Nuclear war could come tomorrow,” Conor wrote. “Those of us who survive it might spend the rest of our days in misery. But that misery would be relatively short. Radical life extension via mind uploads would seem to risk inconceivably long, possibly endless misery.”

The idea of crime and punishment in a world where everyone’s brains are downloaded to computers is the subject of Richard Morgan’s seminal sci-fi novel Altered Carbon. There, consciousness is stored digitally and transferred to a new body upon death, if you can afford it; the rich constantly hop into new, youthful bodies, while the poor can linger in digital storage for decades. Coincidentally enough, Netflix announced Wednesday that it would produce a 10-episode TV series based on the book, which filters the concept of an uploaded mind through that of a cop show, wrestling with the warped morality of a world where it’s very difficult to actually kill someone and practically impossible to imprison them.

The idea of copy-pasted brains, of course, lends itself best to more apocalyptic fiction. In World of Tomorrow, Clone Emily calmly reports that her society is on the brink of witnessing the end of the world, with some trying to escape by zapping their minds into computers and shooting them into space. That idea is at the heart of the brilliant 2015 video game Soma, a nightmarish work of first-person horror storytelling that was released by Frictional Games last September.

Soma begins with its protagonist getting a routine brain-scan in the present day, then waking up in an underwater research facility hundreds of years into the future. It’s a video game, so players pull levers, run down corridors, and dodge scary monsters, but the larger story concept is chilling—the world on Earth’s surface has ended following a comet strike, and this underwater station is all that remains of humanity. Players are tasked with retrieving the world’s brain-scans, including their own, and uploading them into a virtual-reality machine to create some semblance of humanity’s continued existence.

Soma is undoubtedly not for everyone—playing it was scarier than most films I’ve watched in recent years—but like World of Tomorrow and Altered Carbon, it poses fascinating questions about our commitment to living as long as we can by whatever means we can devise. Soma’s protagonist slogs through an abandoned subterranean world just to guarantee the future of human consciousness; Emily’s clone is a stunted creature, but all she wants is to experience life as fully and powerfully as everyone who came before her. World of Tomorrow is just the latest, fascinating reminder of the emotional breadth sci-fi can conjure as it imagines our future, no matter how dark or satirical that vision might be.