Since erupting into the world with the exquisite Oscar-nominated 2000 short Rejected, animator/director Don Hertzfeldt literally hasn't made anything that isn't at least great, and in that time span he has produced multiple candidates for the title of the most important, medium-redefining piece of animation made by an American in the 21st Century. But the most important and medium-redefining of all have been his last two films, 2015's World of Tomorrow and 2017's World of Tomorrow, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People's Thoughts, an unfathomably perfect diptych that together present a commanding declaration on the nature of identity and memory in an age of digital communication that has encouraged us to outsource our memory while also redefining "identity" as a contingent, constantly-refreshed thing that exists at least somewhat removed from our bodies, looking first outward and then inward to describe, in 40 incredibly dense minutes, how technology and personality interact with each other. They're Herzfeldt's best works and among the best things made in the 2010s (I had the pair of them at #2 for the whole decade, and I would be more worried that I underrated them than overrated them), and it is unsurprising in the extreme that Hertzfeldt would both desire to make a third, and that it would be yet another medium-redefining masterpiece. For now we have World of Tomorrow, Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, a movie that falls into the awkward sweet spot of being both a magnificent, overwhelming triumph of emotion, ideas, and visual storytelling, as well as being kind of a disappointment.

Better to get the disappointment part out of the way first. Both World of Tomorrow and Episode Two function in exactly the same way: Hertzfeldt recorded his niece Winona Mae babbling merrily (she was four years old in the first movie, five years old in the second), and then shaped a story around that of Emily, her character, being visited by a time-traveling clone of herself from the future played by the terrific indie animator Julia Pott. The clones, being degraded copies of copies, speak of horrible and beautiful things in a deadpan monotone, while the original little girl solemnly prattles. It is hilarious and terrifying, and it is more hilarious because of how terrifying it is.

Winona Mae has done what little girls do, and gotten old, and so there is no more Emily Prime in Episode Three. Instead, The new film provides us with yet a third clone, Emily-9, still voiced by Pott, who belives herself to be the last of the several Emily clones banging about the universe to possess a particularly treasured set of memories about an earlier Emily's time spend in love with a male clone named David. Many years before the action of the film, she traveled to find David Prime as a young boy, implanting an elaborate cluster of memories in his subconscious to be unpacked when he's old enough to travel the galaxy to track down the information she has very illegally hidden away to try and allow the two of them to be together in some capacity. David Prime is our main character; Emily-9 exists almost exclusively as a series of recordings from the future, monotonously explaining how her time has changed, and what has happened to different generations of David clones that has encouraged her to take these bizarre steps.

I will not lie: for all its marvels, Episode Three does not convince me that Mae was an expendable part of this franchise. Much of what made the first two films such bountiful, joyous pleasures was found in the contrast between her animated yammering and Pott's inflection-free recitation of complicated spirals of dialogue, and how the gulf between two versions of the same character fueled the films' thematic speculations. Episode Three does have a joke or two of that sort, with baby David being voiced by Jack Parrett for a couple of lines, but it's just a very different thing. And it has to be, and it's probably good that it is: Hertzfeldt has made it clear that he intends to keep visiting the World of Tomorrow for a while yet, and to a degree, Episode Three is the proof of concept that this can exist as a series of related stories, rather than as one tightly-bound thematic, narrative, and psychological object (that is to say: don't wait around for the World of Tomorrow movies to be strapped together as one immaculate object, like the three short films that were profitably tied together into the feature-length It's Such a Beautiful Day).

Mind you, the story of Episode Three is intimately connected withΒ the first World of Tomorrow, where we first learned of the love between the Emily and David clones, and there are even a few pieces of animation from that film that have been brought back here, with new filters to go along with their new narrative context. And Pott's performance as the loquacious, quasi-functional Emily-9 is perfectly of a piece with her earlier versions in the earlier movies, so this does feel like it at least belongs with them. The tone has changed, though, and so have the themes. Some of this is because of how much more Episode Three cares about world-building: it takes place in a much fully-realised space, one that continues to skewer the most inhumane parts of our all-digital world: there's a running gag in the first part of the movie about how, when we have computer interfaced plugged directly into our brains, pop-up ads are just going to be that much shittier and more intrusive. Not to mention dumber, if "Holograms That Yell At You" is any indication - or more dystopian, given that one of them offers to sell happy deathbed memories so that you forget about wasting your entire life. This is all paired with a sound mix that frequently favors loud, buzzing noise, creating no distinction whatsoever between what we want to hear and what we couldn't possibly care less about.

But it also uses this shift as an opportunity to dig into its ideas more. Episode Three treats memory and identity differently than the previous films, in part because it has a vastly more complicated narrative that involves multiple Emilys and multiple Davids all sharing the same memories with their other incarnations. This is because the main topic of this film is no longer memory per se than a feeling of romantic fatalism. The crux of the story is that both Emily-9 and David Prime are compelled, by having been given memories that they've never lived, to seek out one another as a soulmate. It's basically about romantic fatalism, being so passionately driven by the awareness that this must be The One that you act less out of choice than by sense of enacting a cosmic ballet in pursuing them. This is not a good thing: in order to continue hearing Emily-9's messages, David must delete from his memory files talents, skills, and eventually basic human functions, to free up RAM. The nasty joke being that much of what Emily-9 has to say is meandering nonsense - but she herself is compelled to say it just as much as he is to hear it.

The result is the most epic and most cynical of the Worlds of Tomorrow to date: the grandeur of the film's 34-minute running time (not much shorter than the first two combined) is put to excellent use in exploring different planets, multiple centuries, and eventually different dimensions of reality. In all of this sprawl, the tight emotional focus and raw pain of the first two movies can sometimes get lost beneath the cacophony of visual details and gags - it is, maybe to make up for being the least philosophically probing World of Tomorrow, probably the funniest World of Tomorrow, with morbid, punchy jokes that feel much more like Hertzfeldt of the 2000s than his later work.

It's also the most aesthetically radical film he's made, which makes it pretty aesthetically radical, indeed. World of Tomorrow, Episode Three is a complicated mixture of flat stick-figure characters moving in depth through photomontage landscapes, a tough mixture of 2-D and 3-D to make look right on any production. But with a crew consisting of himself and digital compositor Taylor Barron, Hertzfeldt has translated his scrawled, childish style into an expansive, highly detailed three-dimensional world without losing any of its its charm or amusing minimalism. Somehow, David feels both like a flat plane and a three-dimensional figure, moving in some of the best character animation of Herzfeldt's career (there is a moment where David slows down and sways and doesn't quite fall, and his entire oval-shaped body and pipe cleaner legs move in a graceful bit of tumbling choreography that is, however briefly, the most elegant, classical piece of animation that Hertzfeldt has ever done).

The look of the film is quite extraordinary, a high-tech low-fi descendant of those same childish sketches Hertzfeldt's career started on, in which the gulf between the simplistic characters and the elaborate sweep of their environment is as much a part of the film's emotional appeal as its narrative or dialogue. There is a real sense of grandeur and discovery, however tainted by death and fatalistic obsession. It has a genuinely cosmic feeling, in its expansive promise and its endless capacity for danger as well, and while a part of me would prefer the laser-focused precision of the first two to such delirious vastness, I can't pretend that it isn't fully intoxicating.

Available to rent on Vimeo

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)