“I had lunch today”
Animator/writer/director Don Hertzfeldt includes a wealth of philosophically introspective gems within his latest sci-fi short World of Tomorrow. None, however, is more poignant than: “That is the thing about the present, Emily Prime. You only appreciate it when it is the past.” Truer words have never been spoken because so many of our greatest moments prove mere blips on our radar upon occurring. Those we celebrate like earning a promotion or winning the big game are fleeting and ultimately meaningless in context with who we are and what defines us. But because we embraced them so fervently, they stick while many others fade away. As death looms, though, memories alongside those we loved become that which we hope to relive one more time.
It’s the simple moments like walking with our parents as children—quiet times recalling the security, comfort, joy, and love when optimism and a happily ever after still seemed possible. But even those who achieve happiness will always have regret. Living a good life doesn’t extinguish our yearning for the youthful innocence we know we can never retrieve. This is why Third Generation Emily (Julia Pott) has used her Earth’s technology almost three centuries in the future to reach backwards and speak with the version of herself that began her existence. Emily Prime (Winona Mae) might be a child with more words in her head than her brain can cognitively parse, but she experienced those moments her clone covets on the eve of destruction.
The film’s conceit is stunning as the mouths of babes literally prove mankind’s salvation. I don’t mean that as in the continuation of our species or as though Prime’s gibberish holds a key to overcoming whatever apocalyptic event shrouds 3rd Gen’s world. Prime is utilized as a mirror of sorts looking into our souls to find what really matters. This youthful Emily is so far removed from the clone she will eventually help create that her day-to-day’s highlights include eating lunch and showing off her toy cars to interested strangers. Whether she holds a specific recollection for 3rd Gen to go through all this trouble or not, just seeing her original body possessed by a real human consciousness can be inspiring enough.
Hertzfeldt’s world is so driven by immortality that it has become a plastic existence without reality. Clones are all that are left—monotone, robotic, and devoid of the emotional spectrum that makes us human. They fall in love with inanimate objects; they exist because of false consciousness. Strip away their memories and they are just empty vessels of biological resources aging until death without a thought. And when something does spark to rekindle feelings long since dormant, it barely registers as more than a fact to be proud of rather than an event to aspire towards. There will be no revolution because the clones removed three generations or more from humanity know nothing but their programming. Live, birth a clone, die, repeat.
So the animation—Hertzfeldt’s first foray into the digital sector along with his “The Simpsons” cold open—can be crude line drawings and yet appear three-dimensional at the same time. We can laugh as Prime rambles and manipulates her future’s Outranet by yelling colors because it is cute and wholesome and untainted by the jadedness of adulthood or the matter-of-factness 3rd Gen’s memory provides. We feel sad for 3rd Gen’s impending demise not because she will be no more, but because the one thing she wishes to re-experience has left her. We retreat inside ourselves and try to pinpoint what we’d want to grab ahold of in our own last breath: a face, a laugh, or perhaps the touch of someone long since gone.
The Word of Tomorrow is therefore nothing without the here and now. Those beings may look like us and know all we know, but our essence cannot endure. And that’s okay. Our mortality affords the ability to live to the fullest knowing it will come to a close without warning. Would you want to upload your consciousness to a cube hoping it finds a shoddy robot or cloned body awaiting programming? I wouldn’t. I’d rather be myself and the experiences I enjoyed, hated, and resigned myself to live. While today may be the day I speak to myself at world’s end, it won’t necessarily be a sad occasion. Prime met a kind woman who took her on an adventure. Whether dream or reality: it made Prime feel alive.