Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everything at Once: The Remarkable 'World of Tomorrow'

World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt, 2015
Image: Don Hertzfeldt / Vimeo
Sci-fi and comedy are regular bedfellows, but rarely do they meet with the sheer unrivaled passions that they do in Don Hertzfeldt's radical short World of Tomorrow. But to limit this sort of film to a mere meeting of two genres is a disservice to a film that flirts with all manner of moods, registers and ideas, and all in the time it takes most films to start maybe considering a second act.

The seeds were sown in the director's exemplary debut feature (albeit a feature that consists of three shorts stitched together) It's Such a Beautiful Day, easily among the most audacious animated features of recent times. That was a film that married brutally honest, philosophical mediations on mortality and ageing with absurdist, deadpan humour, experimental visuals and a clear adoration for Terence Malick films. It was as bold a debut feature as they come, not only packing a punch but packing a variety of punches, jabs, headlocks and dummies to keep the audience on their toes.

So it is in World of Tomorrow, which is available to rent off Vimeo right now, so go and watch it immediately. From the very beginning, it's a short with a wicked sense of deadpan humour, from the adorably oblivious voice performance of young Winona Mae as Emily Prime to the Emilys' grandfather's correspondence to the real world after being uploaded as a 'digital consciousness' ('Oh God. Oh My God. Holy Mother of God. Oh oh oh oh oh oh God' – brilliantly delivered without discernible emotion by Julia Potts).

The wry wit is present and correct throughout the film, yet it soon becomes apparent that thematically the film is worth taking seriously. Its science-fiction conceits are often proudly ludicrous, yet also loaded with legitimately deep insights about the human condition – perhaps the defining feature of any great science-fiction work. Through its exploration of subjects such as uploading identity, cloning and eventually the apocalypse itself, World of Tomorrow is a film that subtly demands the audience to engage with such grand topics as contemporary isolation, identity, class divisions, the impact of technology on our lives and – like its predecessor – mortality itself.

The film's engagement with the hoary old fantasy of time travel is especially cogent. In the film, time travel is a luxury for the rich and famous, albeit with a riskier but cheaper variety available for those who can't afford the real deal. Here even a slight misjudgement in the equation sees people transported into unexpected time periods, or perhaps beamed to certain death in the Earth's upper atmosphere. In one scene, Emily and Emily Prime watch as those desperately trying to escape impending doom take the risk of the discount time travel burn up in the atmosphere, resembling shooting stars. What an image it is: blackly comic, yet elegantly melancholic at the very same time.

Image: Don Hertzfeldt / Vimeo
Hertzfeldt's visual style has evolved in extraordinary directions over the years. His 'breakthrough' hit Rejected was mostly shot in a crude stick figure style, but in the fourth-wall breaking finale the director illustrated a willingness to subvert that form in imaginative and surprising ways. It's Such a Beautiful Day made tremendous use of mixed media, and here the evolution continues. That trademark minimalism still serves as the core authorial signature, but from the first shot onwards – of young Emily approaching an urgently flashing console - it becomes clear this is a film with immense visual energy.

Embracing digital animation in earnest, Hertzfeldt's drawings here leap off the screen. There are images that are abstract, experimental, surreal, fantastical. Geometrical shapes are employed and distorted with utmost care, while other drawings abound with wilder, rougher and unstable sketches that enhance the film's nervous yet excited energy. It's the colour that stands out most, and not just in that wonderful scene where Emily Prime learns she can control the colour of the background by just shouting out her hue of choice. Throughout World of Tomorrow the colourisation is dynamic and bold, constantly shifting to offer up a wide range of memorable imagery. Even the stick figures themselves adapt to the ever-shifting shades – at one point their black outlines seamlessly segue to white as the characters poetically drift towards space.

Perhaps the most powerful scene in the film comes at the end, when Emily is mistakenly transported to some uncertain moment in the distant past. It's a great joke – a humourous callback to a concept mentioned earlier in the film. But there's also something devastatingly sad about the image (even if Hertzfeldt ultimately has her transported back to normality): this young girl, stranded and alone in some miserable, cold, almost certainly hostile location at some undisclosed point in history. What a loaded image, and not a word has to be said. It conjures authentic existential dread while also serving as a delicious punchline (or is that headlockline?). And that's what impresses about World of Tomorrow in just one image: not only can it be praised for many different things, but it's almost always many different things all at once.

Image: Don Hertzfeldt / Vimeo

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