Will you be the one to discover my dead body?
After two introspective science fiction gems that took us on journeys of self-discovery within the subconscious, filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt decides to take World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime in a different direction. That’s not to say the third part of this series isn’t deep, though, as there’s a lot to be said about love and longing and jealousy. Rather than lean on dialogue via a brilliant back and forth between a child’s endearing innocence and the harsh truth of hindsight, Hertzfeldt concocts a propulsive narrative that advances on the back of its plot instead. Episode Three is thus the most accessible and perhaps superficial entry while simultaneously being its most entertaining too. What it lacks in insight, it makes up in excitement.
The lead this time around is David Prime—a character you may remember as being the origin of a line in which its last main consciousness clone was loved by and married to Third Generation Emily. He’s at once middle-aged and a toddler at the start, each version of himself listening to the voice of Emily 9 (Julia Pott: a distant backup copy of the consciousness that itself ended with Third Generation Emily’s demise at world’s end. Having memory of the previous Emilys gives her awareness of the David who died abruptly centuries ago. And in her travels through time to witness these memories first-hand, Emily 9 has discovered information crucial to the David line that demands to be known whether or not anything can be done to change it.
So Emily 9 travels back to when David Prime was a baby, implanting a compressed file that middle-aged David Prime will be made aware of decades later. In it is a secret that reveals both long-lasting ramifications and extra questions surrounding the where, how, and why of his future clone’s death as replayed from footage first seen by us in World of Tomorrow. Through it is the opportunity to alter fate—something most theories about time travel deem impossible. It’s said that changing events in the past will ultimately course correct in order to preserve the big moments cemented for eternity. Even so, Emily 9’s latent love for the idea of David drives her to try anyway. If David knows what she knows, everything might turn out different.
Her attempt comes with ample humor and visual gags. As we know from the previous episodes, David Prime lived generations before Emily Prime. The technology at his disposal would thus be a lot more primitive than that utilized by Emily 9. Planting her file is therefore similar to someone today sending a 4gb video file less than three decades into the past when computers had 500mb hard-drives and 100mb Zip Disks were thought to be the wave of the future because they increased portable storage from 3mb floppy disks. So David Prime has to uninstall a ton of information to make room. Some of that info is random stuff like robot repair, but the list of functions inevitably travels down to core abilities like walking. Sacrifices are made.
Episode Three proves itself to almost be more akin to Hertzfeldt’s older, more irreverent shorts like Rejected than its predecessors in this franchise. From screaming characters to drooling characters to pop-up advertisements predicting futuristic implants and aesthetic enhancements, a big draw to this short is its zaniness. That it spans hundreds of years rather than minutes of a dream-like encounter sets it apart too because we’re watching a three-act structure play out instead of a dense yet quick run through of memories and the power of free will. David Prime is given a mission and holds true to it’s potential to come face-to-face with a supposed certainty. Will he do what needs to be done? Will it actually matter if he does? Or just prolong the inevitable?
That’s why we watch. Will time change or stay the same? Will Emily 9’s plan work or was her stated plan in the message merely a ruse to set David Prime onto a path in pursuit of ulterior motives? Hertzfeldt is using manipulation to accomplish his endgame this time whereas episodes one and two sought to dismantle its control. While that’s a fascinating dynamic in and of itself that’s begging to be dissected with multiple viewings, initial watches concern the action at-hand. It’s enough to maintain our interest and investment through sheer wit, ingenuity (flat, 2D environments have been replaced by more sophisticated terrain with textures and 3D-mapping), and suspense. He’s engaging us through cinematic language instead of pure emotional resonance, but the result is no less memorable.