The Essential Saga of Don Hertzfeldt's World of Tomorrow

The second episode of the animator’s series of short films, subtitled The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, is as original and moving as the first.

A scene from 'World of Tomorrow Episode Two'
Don Hertzfeldt

In Don Hertzfeldt’s films, the unconscious can be a grand, terrifying playground, a vast sci-fi landscape of swirling vortexes, rainbow-colored clouds, and shiny oblong rocks strewn beside a black sea. Early in World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, Hertzfeldt’s dizzying sequel to his Oscar-nominated 2015 short film World of Tomorrow, a little girl and her adult clone are exploring a virtual representation of the clone’s brain. The two walk around a beach of memories, and the girl picks up a shiny object. “That is a glimmer of hope,” her grown-up copy tells her. “Put it back.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds a little heady. But the delight of the World of Tomorrow series is the clarity of Hertzfeldt’s ideas, and how powerfully they ring through the strange, knotty stories of the future he’s depicting through a mix of stick-figure animation and surreal digital effects. The first World of Tomorrow runs 16 minutes, and the sequel (now available to rent on Vimeo) is 22 minutes long. Within those short timeframes, Hertzfeldt tackles how humankind will eventually contend with immortality, time travel, cloning, deep-space colonization, and the end of the world. Hint: We don’t handle any of it very well.

World of Tomorrow, which is currently available to stream on Netflix, is extremely funny, hauntingly sweet, and dense with philosophical concepts. It follows the adventures of a child named Emily (Winona Mae), who is visited by her third-generation clone (Julia Pott), a woman from hundreds of years in the future who has had all of Emily’s memories uploaded into her brain to guarantee a sort of immortality. The Emily-clone is an odd creature speaking in halting sentences, a copy of a copy trying to hang on to some semblance of a personality, where her revered ancestor (referred to as Emily Prime) is a bubbly kid who runs around and rambles about this and that.

Emily Prime was voiced by Hertzfeldt’s 4-year-old niece, her performance cobbled together from audio recordings he made of her drawing and playing. For Episode Two, Hertzfeldt repeated the process (when his niece was 5 years old), and found it more difficult to assemble a logical plot around her. “That madness of childhood imagination had fully taken hold and she was spouting endless monologues about fantasy worlds,” he said in an interview. Perhaps that’s why Episode Two lacks the relative simplicity of its forebear. But the challenge posed to Hertzfeldt helped him expand his world and dig into weirder new ideas, while maintaining the goofy energy of the first short film.

Emily Prime is still a giggling young girl mostly interested in explaining what she’s drawing rather than the psychotic landscapes exploding around her. But this time she’s visited by Emily-6, a clone of Emily’s future clone from the last film. Emily-6 was created to exist only as a memory backup but now serves no purpose, as her “sister” perished in an apocalyptic event. Yes, there’s an ironic twist to Hertzfeldt making the subject of his sequel a further copy of a copy, but Emily-6 is even more odd and removed from reality than her counterpart was. She guides Emily Prime through the confused landscape of her own psyche, in hopes that her original self can untangle it.

This means Episode Two is less concerned with the life of Emily Prime, which was explored in the first entry, and more interested in digging into the broken future that creates these sad, memory-lacking clones. We watch Emily-6 recollect her experiences growing up in a test tube on a deep-space colony, bonding with other Emily clones, and obsessing over the hallowed life of their ancestor despite lacking any real-world context with which to understand it. It is a pitiful existence, even grimmer than that of the Emily clone of the first World of Tomorrow, but Hertzfeldt finds compassion even in these faded copies, with the happy-go-lucky Emily Prime convincing Emily-6 that her life is not without meaning.

After walking among her “glimmers of hope” with Emily Prime, Emily-6 recalls her most disturbing memory: squishing a bug as a child and realizing that it had no backup copies, no clones in storage who could carry on its life. “All of its experiences are gone forever. We can never know them,” she tells Emily Prime. “If there is a soul, it is equal in all living things,” she concludes, and that’s the tale’s larger point—that no matter how horrifying the future might be, even some twisted piece of humanity will still be ineffably alive.

Hertzfeldt’s special brand of storytelling conjures incredible emotional depths even from the simplest creations. His characters are mere stick figures with basic cartoon faces, and their backgrounds (like Emily-6’s test-tube creation) might be completely ludicrous and fanciful, but they’re more lovable than most flesh-and-blood actors manage to be in live-action films. The idea of Emily-6 might be distressing to consider, but as a sci-fi heroine she’s among the best the genre’s ever seen.

It’s ideal to watch World of Tomorrow’s two episodes together, so the smaller details of Hertzfeldt’s world-building make more sense. But Episode Two is no tired rehashing of previous concepts; it deserves the same cult status its predecessor quickly acquired. Hertzfeldt is still an artist working on the fringes of American animation, but he should be considered one of the medium’s best storytellers. And though each future episode World of Tomorrow will never get the hype of a Star Wars movie, in any ranking of ongoing sci-fi franchises the saga of Emily Prime should be near the top.