Lessons From the Future to a Pint-Size Granny

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Why you should care

The cycle of life and death never loses its hold.

Don Hertzfeldt creates moments of such simple beauty that you might miss their depth. This unassuming approach helps viewers trust that the 38-year-old animator’s quietly sweeping statements are coming from a place of emotion rather than pretense; he’s not unlike fellow Lone Star State filmmakers Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater in that regard.

The offbeat humor of his Academy Award-nominated Rejected made him a cult figure, but it was his 2012 feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day that cemented his status as a master. Hertzfeldt’s latest short, World of Tomorrow (available on demand via Vimeo), reaffirms that status. Just as It’s Such a Beautiful Day was like an animated analogue to The Tree of Life, World of Tomorrow compresses a marvel of feelings and ideas into its slender runtime. Hertzfeldt comes closer to Kubrick/Spielberg territory, namely A.I. Artificial Intelligence — the same sense of wonder struck through with melancholy.

A little girl named Emily receives a video transmission from a woman claiming to be her clone/descendant from 227 years in the future — a “third-generation Emily,” as she puts it. This woman, hereafter referred to as Future Emily, has taken it upon herself to educate her “grandmother” on the technological advancements that have made their communication possible, but really she’s here to retrieve a memory from her ancestor. The contents of said recollection are private and not to be disclosed.

The bulk of World of Tomorrow’s 16 minutes and 29 seconds consists of a somewhat one-sided conversation between the two, with Future Emily’s highly technical jargon and Emily Prime’s childlike babbling. There’s both tension and humor in their exchanges. After a primer on cloning, Emily Prime might reply: “I had lunch today.” That they’re communicating via a neural network called the Outernet? Also boring to this Emily.

Most of the topics Future Emily touches on are both funny and sad — an art gallery of anonymous memories, depressing poetry written by robots — but above all she’s concerned with mortality. “That’s the thing about the present, Emily Prime. You only appreciate it when it is the past.” For Hertzfeldt and his on-screen counterparts, sadness and happiness are equals; real feelings mean more than ever in the digital age. This leads to the work’s harshest truth: Most of us won’t live to see the world of tomorrow.

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