For the first 20 years of his career, Don Hertzfeldt - America's greatest living independent animator - worked analogue. And not just analogue, but analogue. The fact that his short films were all drawn by hand on paper wasn't merely a technical curiosity, it was central to how several of his best projects existed: Rejected, with its climax in which the paper medium rebels against both the creator and his creations; the trilogy collected into the anthology feature It's Such a Beautiful Day, which uses different kinds of paper and manipulations of the material to craft different layers of space and shade.

For someone as alert to the particularities of how the medium shapes and defines the content as Hertzfeldt, it's no surprise that his first foray into digital animation would turn out to be something special. Though calling 2015's World of Tomorrow "something special" is, if I may say so, cheap as shit. I think it would be no exaggeration at all to call World of Tomorrow the most celebrated short film of the 2010s, hitting a great many top 10 lists in 2015 (my own among them). And this is for meany reasons, I am sure, including that World of Tomorrow has just about the densest screenplay of any film of any length made in the English language in the 21st Century, but since I started out talking about the animated medium itself, I'd like to keep going in that direction for right now.

World of Tomorrow is a digital film about digital culture. The plot is both inordinately complex and relatively simple: at some point in the presumably near future, 4-year-old Emily (Winona Mae, Hertzfeldt's niece) receives a call on the family's video wall phone. On the other side, she meets another Emily (Julia Pott) - her own third-generation clone, contacting her from 227 years into the future. They are able to communicate thanks to what is, for Emily-3, a reasonably new and dangerous form of time travel, and this is exactly how the clone pulls the little girl into the world of (if you will) tomorrow. There is, from this point onward, virtually no plot whatsoever; Emily-3 describes the technology and culture of her own time period, while Emily Prime happily babbles on in the incomprehensible way of 4-year-olds: Winona Mae was recorded with a script or any other prompt, and Hertzfeldt fashioned the film around her.

So really, World of Tomorrow is little more than a description. It sketches out, in Emily-3's deadened monotone (Pott, a great indie animator in her own right, is fantastic at playing a character with absolutely no inflection who is nevertheless able to communicate longing, boredom, annoyance, existential fear, and irritability, based on virtually nothing but the pacing of her lines), a society that has fallen into a void of computer spaces, where every moment is filtered and filtered through communication technology until, like Emily-3 herself, it barely resembles the original, having lost all of its affect. At the same time, the people in this society have found ways to extract beauty and pleasure from the new forms created by this filtering process.

I have done a poor job of talking about the film-as-medium. So the thing is, World of Tomorrow is set in, and is about, virtual spaces and virtual experiences. And it brings these spaces to life through the means of digital animation. Not digital animation in the sense of Pixar or that kind of thing. This is still a film populated by Hertzfeldt's characteristic stick figures, characters that could literally have been drawn by a child of Winona Mae's own age, and whose primitive simplicity is precisely what allows their animator to imbue them with such strong emotion. With faces made out of nothing but two dots and weird half-circle mouths, the two Emilys are capable of an enormous range of feelings, despite one of them being an oblivious child, the other being an emotionally deadened clone.

The future landscapes are, however, entirely and necessarily digital in nature. The film first spends time in the Outernet, a species-wide neural network dominated by fields of color in which shapes float in smooth, straight lines across the screen. Later, as the clone Emily begins to take Emily prime through her memories, the film begins playing with a wider and wider variety of backgrounds, from simple mottled color fields to elaborate, abstract constructs of lines against gradient backdrops, over computer-generated, color-coded waveforms roughly evoking the impression of clouds, mountains, or plains.

It is, maybe, the most perfect science-fiction world ever created. It's a film about the completely unreal, synthetic landscape inhabited by humans whose interconnectivity has largely rendered "the real world" irrelevant; and the space in which it takes place is suitably unrecognisable, formless, devoid of context cues that allow us to think of it as "space" at all. It's a truly alien film, much as it needs to be, while also being a gorgeous playground of unstable colors.

All of which is well and good, but it wouldn't be enough for World of Tomorrow to have so impressed so many viewers without something underneath it. And that something is a mixture of the deeply personal with the broadly universal. The film takes as its topic perhaps the most worthwhile subject of art in the 21st Century: as technology changes how we communicate and see the world, how does it also change who we are humans? There's a cynical, satiric bend to how Hertzfeldt answers these questions: World of Tomorrow is, at heart, a comedy, one in which most of the humor comes out of random, dumb things; much of the humor also has a bitter, bleak overtone (Hertzfeldt's company isn't named Bitter Films for nothing, after all). One of the earliest big laughs is also the chilliest, as the Emily clone reads a message from her grandfather whose personality was broken after he was uploaded to a hard drive: Pott calmly recites a litany of "Oh God. Oh my God. Oh holy mother of God", apparently oblivious to the horror of her words, while Emily Prime stares over the control panel of her video phone, the angle accentuating her adorable tininess. This isn't the only the last time that the film plays a joke whose punchline is basically "we have mortgaged away our souls for technological power", and which is funny as hell while also being terrifying.

Sometimes, the film just goes straight for the bleakness, as in clone Emily's celebrated monologue about emotional pain: "I do not have the mental or emotional capacity to deal with his loss, but sometimes, I sit in a chair late at night and quietly feel very bad. When the night is at its most quiet, I can hear death. I am very proud of my sadness, because it means I am more alive." And in one of the dirtiest tricks he has ever played, Hertzfeldt marries this speech to a huge black frame, with a white drawing of Emily slouched in a chair, looking up into the infinity of the world. It's one of the greatest moments in a film this decade, utterly devastating and sad, but also ending on the most beautiful of sentiments: "I am alive".

And this is the core of World of Tomorrow. Oh, it's easy to admire the film for its critique of digital culture, which is wide-ranging and unforgiving; but that's easy. What makes World of Tomorrow a truly great work of art is that it complicates this critique by noting that it is possible to make the best of any world, digital or analogue, high-tech or not. Computers made this film possible, after all. Technology and the information revolution are also what makes it possible for one generation to understand and learn from a generation centuries dead, to be able to engage with the memories of people who died before we were born. Really, what else is cinema itself: the document of the dreams of people who are no longer alive, and a way for those now living to record their own dreams against the time that we are dead ourselves. For all its sardonic humor, World of Tomorrow is both a beautiful tribute to that optimistic use of technology, and a beautiful embodiment of technology's capabilities as well. It might suppose that, when given the chance, humans are likely to fuck things up, but it takes great comfort in the thought that likely doesn't mean must, and offers up that comfort for its viewers as well.

For more on this film, check out my article discussing my favorite image as part of the Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot series.

Reviews in this series
World of Tomorrow (Hertzfeldt, 2015)
World of Tomorrow, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People's Thoughts (Hertzfeldt, 2017)
World of Tomorrow, Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (Hertzfeldt, 2020)