The Conversation is a feature at PopOptiq bringing together Drew Morton and Landon Palmer in a passionate debate about cinema new and old. For their fourteenth piece, they discuss Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated animated short, World of Tomorrow (2015).
Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow was my favorite film of 2015, followed closely by two other science fiction masterpieces: George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Alex Garland’s debut, Ex Machina. The visibility of the science fiction genre during the past year gave me cause to reflect: what exactly is science fiction? Landon and I dipped our toes into these waters a bit with last month’s column focused on Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) when we discussed how genre films are typically cited as candy-coating for bringing subtextual American ideology into the open. However, we both challenged this common conception by showcasing a range of films that put ideology up front and center. But what unites these three acclaimed films of 2015?
We occasionally link genres to setting, no doubt due to the one time popularity of the Western in American cinema. Westerns take place in the uncivilized to early civilized West. Fantasy films take place in a land removed from our own with creatures and a history unfamiliar to us (think about what the first ten minutes of Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings film accomplish!). Crime films take place in the city. But where do musicals take place? Sometimes musicals take place backstage (Singin’ in the Rain), but not always (West Side Story). And what about sci-fi? The future? Sure, Mad Max takes place in the future and portions of World of Tomorrow do, but Ex Machina and The Day the Earth Stood Still do not. Hell, the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) takes place at the dawn of man! Thus, setting – time and place – does not effectively define a genre. Hence the move from genre theorists like Rick Altman towards defining genre through linguistic models: across semantic (character types, iconography, setting) and syntactic (the structures that determine the relationships between the semantic pieces) dimensions. Thus, in the Western we often see an opposition between an uncivilized countryside inhabited by adversarial Native Americans and the cowboys and agents of the law that will conquer it and spread civilization in their wake. This brings about an ideologically charged theme – manifest destiny – that was later looked upon critically by the Westerns of the 1970s and 80s (like Heaven’s Gate).
Sci-fi often features an opposition between civilization and a scientific unknown. Ex Machina provokes questions of ethics when man – literally man – encounters the female embodiment of artificial intelligence. Mad Max: Fury Road features a similar conflict that superimposes a Feminist struggle on top of warring clans in an apocalyptic future. World of Tomorrow goes down a familiar generic road – civilization faced with advanced technology (see also The Matrix, The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Lawnmower Man, etc.) – but changes the stakes. Typically, this type of encounter leads to the apocalypse we glimpse in Mad Max. And while we certainly see doomsday in Hertzfeldt’s film, the animated short is far more concerned with the smaller questions of how we have let technology slowly alter our everyday life, and how much of that relationship is based on class.
The genius of Hertzfeldt’s film lies in how it takes our new, digital, socially mediated everyday and slightly amplifies it to reveal how it alters our interpersonal relationships. Similar to David Foster Wallace’s depiction of video phones in Infinite Jest in which the ability to see one another during phone calls goes from bringing us closer to becoming an incredible nuisance (people purchase avatars that make it look like they are paying attention to the other caller so that they can multitask during calls), World of Tomorrow paints a lonely future in which people have lost the ability to communicate with one another. This is particularly evident in our film’s protagonist Emily (voiced by Julia Pott), a third generation clone whose romantic life includes being attracted to a series of inanimate objects – a rock, a fuel pump – before she finally falls in love with another, albeit defective, clone. In the end, however, it is the younger “Prime” version of herself (voiced by Winona Mae) that she tries to relate to and recapture memories through. She utilizes time travel to bring the toddler version of herself into the future and tries to explain the world to her younger self, who is obviously unable to comprehend it.
This future includes an economically stratified version of immortality. The rich download their consciousness into cloned versions of themselves until they slowly deteriorate. The poor, however, are unable to afford this luxury and must upload their consciousnesses into black cubes. Life in these cubes is intolerable; time passes at an elongated rate and the only connection to the outside world involves writing letters and watching videos that rich family members in the outside world upload for them. It seems that Hertzfeldt is criticizing the current economy of digital connectivity. Cable companies are increasingly turning to the phone company model of data plan usage limits. The rich (or those fortunate enough to sign up for a cell phone contract when they still had unlimited talk, text, and data plans – my students call my plan “the unicorn”) are becoming the only economic bracket with “unlimited” access. Now, this may seem like the proper moment that would cause a luddite to cry out “Leave the house! Who needs unlimited access!” Well, in an era where physical media is quickly becoming a thing of the past (when was the last time you bought a CD or DVD?) access is quickly becoming everything…particularly when the people around you are tuned in. Example: How many of you have to avoid Facebook or the Internet in general when a new episode of [INSERT SHOW HERE] airs until you can watch it? You’re disconnected; you’re drifting. You’re no longer in the same conversation.
To be clear, Hertzfeldt isn’t advocating constant connectivity. He is simply pointing out that a culture based around technology tends to have an economic dimension that structures our knowledge and our ability to communicate, which in turn leaves the lower classes behind. He underlines this economic dimension throughout the short by repeatedly reflecting on the fate of the poor in this future. As the world faces its end, the poor cannot afford to escape. They purchase cheap time travel packages that leave them stranded in time or space – either stuck deep in the soil of the Earth or ejected into orbit, destined to become falling stars as they burn up on their way back down. The world of World of Tomorrow, like that of Blade Runner, is not kind to the lower classes.
Obviously, Hertzfeldt is not particularly optimistic about a culture dependent on technology (what sci-fi film is?). However, his view of technology is much more complex than we might first assume. After all, Emily the Clone utilizes technology to go back in time, relive memories through her younger self, and find some comfort in the face of death. She succeeds and relives a memory of her younger self walking with her mother. In the climax, Emily the Clone voices the moral of the story as she tells her younger self “not to lose time on daily trivialities. Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all the dead.” Emily Prime is clearly unable to comprehend this advice and technology momentarily fails again as she is temporarily transported back in time to a desolate landscape before coming back to her home. Yet, Emily Prime’s action is telling: she turns her back on the computer that summoned her, yells “what a happy day it is,” and runs out of the room.
In the end, for Hertzfeldt – as in It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012) – we have to come to terms with our eventual demise and act accordingly. Not out of fear, like the robots opposite the dark side of the moon, but out of living in the moment. Social media and technology can occasionally obscure that philosophy and can become their own prisons (as they do for the poor especially), but they can also open small windows into our pasts – as they are in the case of the art gallery Emily the Clone starts – and provide relief in moments of pain and sadness.
Drew observes that “the genius of Hertzfeldt’s film lies in how it takes our new, digital, socially mediated everyday and slightly amplifies it to reveal how it alters our interpersonal relationships.” Indeed, one of the aspects of World of Tomorrow that makes it such an accomplished film – besides the fact that it is a beautifully rendered and emotionally complex work of imagination – is that it uses the science-fiction tropes Drew mentions to render a vision of the future that is critical, ambivalent, and at times outright depressing, but never quite dystopic.
To build from Drew’s argument, World of Tomorrow indeed looks to the future in order to gain insight into present issues about mortality, love, and what it means to be human in a world increasingly defined by mediated communication and algorithm-defined human connection. Where many works of science-fiction produce dystopian images of an undesirable future in order to function as a cautionary tales (though, as Drew suggests, there are many exceptions to this, including the film we discussed last month), World of Tomorrow finds the Emily Clone introducing the future to Emily Prime not as a possibility that can be avoided, but an inevitable part of our trajectory. A cold technocracy, class disparity that extends through time and space, and an existential apocalypse of what we presume makes us human – a toxic combination of Ray Kurzweil’s post-human futurism and Bernie Sanders’s prognostications of entrenched economic doom – are treated as a given, not as a problem that our protagonist has a moral imperative to avoid.
Despite being set up as a bizarro-world Tomorrowland tour of the future, World of Tomorrow’s wonders are at once immediate, striking, and despondently unsurprising, all realized with the stark, almost cubist beauty of Hertzfeldt’s animation style. When the Emily Clone reads the note of an elderly relative trapped in a box where he can only consume culture (retirement reduced to the properties of a Kindle) or recites the poetry of sentient robots whose sole driving purpose is to race against the dark side of the moon in avoidance of icy death, the howling despair articulated in these documents registers as a punchline precisely because they constitute a reasonably anticipated reaction, a last gasp at of human experience echoing toward the indifferent winds of an absurd landscape.
Indeed, World of Tomorrow looks at a seemingly inevitable future for insight into the present, thematically climaxing with the Emily Clone’s monologue concluding with, “Now is the envy of all the dead.” Human presence is a rare and invaluable commodity in both the present and future worlds of World of Tomorrow. And if these parting words from the Emily Clone may seem too pat a thesis summing up what we should think of the many portending sights exhibited within this densely packed sixteen minutes, the final punchline drains this dialogue of any potential cliché, as Emily Prime is accidentally catapulted into prehistoric Earth. Hertzfeldt lingers just long enough to make us wonder whether he will kill off his adorable, helplessly naïve protagonist – making good on the cold indifference of the world he envisions. No sentiment is needed to realize that the “now” to which the Emily Clone refers is incredibly precious and unstable. But Emily Prime returns to her present, spared – for a while – from the troubling realities of the world she will come to know.
That said, I believe there exists a message of hope in World of Tomorrow outside the Emily Clone’s last-ditch effort to highlight the importance of presentism and now-ness. The Emily Clone tells Emily Prime a story of misplaced connection ending with her very human encounter with another clone, whose eventual death makes the Emily Clone proud of the insurmountable sadness that she seizes as evidence of her humanity. Throughout World of Tomorrow, the Emily Clone is constantly qualifying herself as inherently inferior to Emily Prime, evident in her glitches and protracted ability to love and court another human. The Emily Clone misattributes in Emily Prime a kind of purity and superiority by her status as original. Yet the Emily Clone’s stated insufficiencies are just as resonant of contemporary human nature as her connections and emotions – her misplaced affections, feelings of listlessness, elusive memories, and general longing capture perfectly the feelings of displacement, of not belonging, of “not doing it right” that occupies much of everyday life, and even more so a life constantly shaped by mediated encounters and expectations.
World of Tomorrow ambivalently nods to the possibility that disconnection may be an essentially (not increasingly) human quality. The film is ultimately a non-dystopian look at the future in service of insight into the present because it emphasizes one aspect of being human that remains eternal, if variant given the particular historical conditions by which it arises: the nagging feeling of alienation from what a “human” is supposed to be.
World of Tomorrow is now available on Netflix Watch Instantly.