World of Tomorrow’s Stick Figures Made Me Have an Existential Crisis

The latest from America’s most important independent animator is crude, hilarious, and devastating.

A stick figure walks through an alien landscape.
David Prime in World of Tomorrow Episode Three. Bitter Films

T.S. Eliot once offered to show us fear in a handful of dust, but Don Hertzfeldt can do it with a few squiggly lines. In his early career, Hertzfeldt brutalized his stick-figure protagonists as a dark joke, but over the past two decades, during which time he’s also become the most important independent animator in the United States, the horrors he’s visited upon them have become existential as well as physical. Rejected, released in 2000, begins as deranged slapstick, with crudely drawn characters shrieking as blood gushes from their wounds, but by the end, the film itself starts to disintegrate, and it takes the viewer’s mind with it. His first feature, 2012’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day, made cognitive decay its text, as its main character, simply named Bill, struggles with a neurological illness that is eating away at his memories. And in the World of Tomorrow series, whose third installment was self-released today, he explores the degradation of consciousness as it’s transferred from a woman named Emily to her several clones, some of whom function as little more than drooling backup units.

Hertzfeldt’s films have grown more visually complex over the years. Where his early shorts feature line drawings floating in a sea of white, the World of Tomorrow series makes use of elaborate digital backdrops. But his characters look more or less the same as the always have, with single-stroke arms and legs protruding from inverted-teardrop bodies topped with a raggedly spherical head. But the emotions they evoke are anything but simple. As I’ve watched Hertzfeldt’s movies over the years, I’ve always marveled at the depth of my response to these deceptively crude figures, who evoke visceral reaction in ways that more supple and realistic depictions do not.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, shifts its perspective from Emily to David, the subject of her unrequited and then tragically realized love. (Technically the consummation of their romance involves several generations of clones and a bit of time travel, but it’s too complicated to summarize here.) Four hundred years before the first episode begins, David is visited by one of Emily’s clones, who implants in his mind the directions to a planet where he can retrieve his future clone’s memories of the time when the two of them were happy together. David wants to follow them—although since he never speaks, he doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter—but making room to play back her message requires obliterating portions of his own mind, which is contained on some sort of cut-rate neural chip. As he grows closer to his goal, we watch as David, like a computer user desperate to find space on his hard drive, deletes one file after another, beginning with optional skills like basic accounting and, towards, the end, things like “sense of justice” and “walking.” As David progresses along the surface of this alien planet, he passes through an underground cavern where he’s warned to beware of the “moaning cave worms of the lower emotions,” a mere drop of whose saliva can cause a person to scream in pain for the rest of the lives. But by then so little of David’s mind remains that he simply walks straight through it, getting doused in poisonous worm spit and then shrieking hysterically.

The moment is played for laughs, and it’s hilarious, but it’s also deeply unsettling. In a time when we’ve rightly questioned whether any fictional personage can exist outside of cultural specificity, Hertzfeldt’s stick figures may be the last truly universal characters. Their stripped-down, almost iconic nature forces you to fill in the blanks, and the simplest thing to fill them with is yourself. Their thin-lined bodies seem excruciatingly fragile, and their hearts and minds are no more robust. Without even much in the way of clothing—Emily’s body is a stylized inverted triangle, and David might as well be wearing nothing at all—they’re unprotected from the ravages of the world. As a longtime admirer of Hertzfeldt’s hand-drawn animation, I worried that the World of Tomorrow series’ switch to digital would rob his characters of their alchemical crudity, but if anything, the contrast between his minimalist figures and the intricately detailed world they inhabit has only grown starker, and more cruel.

This isn’t only true on a visual plane, either. As the voice of Emily’s adult clones, Julia Pott narrates the shorts in a British-accented monotone (perhaps a deliberate homage to the affectless voiceover of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, which is also concerned with the way memory transforms experience), while the original Emily, Emily Prime, speaks in found-footage babbling sourced from Hertzfeldt’s toddler niece. Pott’s immaculate deadpan is perfect for morbid gags like “I have written you a love poem. It is called ‘Will You Be the One to Discover My Dead Body?’” But it also serves as camouflage for the hard-won sentimentality at the core of the World of Tomorrow films. At heart, they are stories of love and loss, of the endless struggle to extract a sliver of meaning from a ruthless and chaotic universe, about how finding the right person can make the misery of existence just about bearable. “Live well and live broadly,” Emily’s time-traveling clone tells her younger, uncloned self. “You are alive and living now.” It’s a mere gloss on carpe diem, but after the disorientation World of Tomorrow has put us through, it’s like a raft in a raging sea.

Emily Prime’s clone has another piece of advice for her: “Do not dwell on petty detail.” That’s a maxim Don Hertzfeldt seems to have taken to heart. The plot of World of Tomorrow Episode Three, which eventually overlaps and intertwines with the plot of the first two episodes, is so intricate that merely contemplating it can make you feel short of breath. But at its center is an unadorned, nearly silent stick figure, a vessel waiting to be filled.