Don Hertzfeldt Returns to Tomorrow

The master of animated stick-figure existential humor is back

You may not know the name Don Hertzfeldt. But if you’re of a certain age, you might recall a Simpsons couch gag from awhile back that made you wonder, fleetingly, what in the hell did you just see?

That was Hertzfeldt.

Before that 2014 vignette, the animator established himself as a master of stick-figure existential humor in his short Rejected and a trio of them called Everything Will Be OK, all of which are highly worth checking out. But his World of Tomorrow takes it all to a new level.

In the original, a time-traveling adult clone (voiced in exquisite monotone by animator Julia Pott), visits a little girl named Emily and takes her on a tour of the “outernet” of the future. Their journey is both hilariously bleak and a poetic celebration of life: “Now is the envy of all of the dead,” says grown Emily to an enthusiastic, uncomprehending toddler version of herself. The 18-minute stunner was, rightly, an Oscar nominee; its 2018 followup, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, was not. If Three doesn’t finally snag the award, it’s an insult to both animation and imagination.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime is the longest and most complex chapter yet, a sci-fi thriller with a twisty Nolan-esque plot, and, unlike anything that guy’s made, a delightful running time of 33 minutes. It switches focus to the object of Emily’s affection, whom we’ve met briefly in the previous shorts.

Hertzfeldt has loaded the first half of Episode Three with his signature comedic, dystopian melancholy. David, an average guy, is bobbing around in a spaceship when he’s confronted with a hologram-message a stranger named Emily has embedded in his brain. She’s left him information stashed on a distant planet, but to get to it, he’ll have to delete features of his own knowledge to make room for the giant future-message to play in full. At first, the stuff he gets rid of seems relatively expendable–Acidic Atmosphere Aviation, Robotics Repair–but gradually he pares down to critical motor functions: Basic Spatial Ability, Sense of Timing.

As he forges toward his destination on a rocky and hostile planet, David’s deterioration feels bleakly familiar. Who among us has not felt, this year, like they’ve been reduced to a screaming husk by the Moaning Cave Worms of the Lower Emotions? Or is it just me?

Eventually, Episode Three churns up a time-traveling mystery involving various iterations of David and his clones, and his centuries-spanning love affair with Emily. Part of me balks at the introduction of a more quasi-linear storyline, because I so enjoy being adrift in the mental landscapes of Emilys and Davids. But I’m also wildly curious to see what Hertzfeldt comes up with next: This one ends on a pretty solid cliffhanger, so I’m hoping in a year or two another of these gems will spring up.

I recommend watching these with your headphones on–the new one, in particular, features stellar sound design. Like the first two episodes, Hertzfeldt has filled the soundtrack with classical music interspersed with robotic frills, but it also wanders into Vangelis-esque territory, which I’m considering a nod to the cyborg-identity-crisis classic Blade Runner.

All the episodes are available on Vimeo: “sorry i’ll try to have something intelligent to say here in a bit. for now i need to lie on the floor a little longer,” says the director by way of introduction to Episode Three, which just came out late last week. Understandable. You can watch some of his pieces in full on YouTube, too. But please just buy them and help ensure this guy keeps making brilliant, haunting pieces of art.

Don Hertzfeldt

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post, CNN.com, and more. You can see her stories and contact her at sarastewart.org. But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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