Pregnant melancholy and sweltering silence slide easily into straight-jacketed psychosis in World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt’s nearly oxygen-less sonic strut down memory lane with memories stabbed in the back and replaced with cadaverous pantomimes of human experience. With its release, we must ask: has artistic rigor mortis set in? It is no trouble to identify Hertzfeldt in a murderer’s row of modern animators for the crime of World of Tomorrow – not an artistic crime, mind you, but a heretical declaration against society’s moral code. It is classic Hertzfeldt, with the id of the human experience unlocked so that the feral beast we might expect can lunge out, confront its lack of agency in a forbidden twisting nether of an empty world around it, and quietly give in to the nothingness with indifference and cruel, frosty anonymity. Hertzfeldt’s world is a comic one, but this is one tomorrow you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.
With Hertzfeldt no longer the hungry, omnivorous young animation alien he once was, it is easy to accuse him of self-cannibalism, or worse, maturation into middlebrow respectability. World of Tomorrow is certainly the most laser-like and precise of all of his works and, on one hand, its relative clarity of animation and narration is devoid of the childlike innocence and flaring manic-depressive non-representational qualities of his earlier works, where the animation often seemed to crack and burn up right before our eyes and take the very essence of the piece, and a chunk of our sanity, with it. World – with its icy tale of a childhood youth named Emily transported to the future for a field trip to an anonymous, clinically submissive world – is Hertzfeldt willfully trampling the maniacal, edge-of-sanity qualities of his animation, sedating it to a monotone drone.
But World of Tomorrow isn’t a devolution so much as a realization, with the middle-aged Hertzfeldt no longer drunkenly rampaging against the dying of the light and instead lying still while the coils of mortality and darkness crawl around him. It is an evolution, or at least a sideways step, in animation style as well: the criminal scrawl of Hertzfeldt’s animation at its most chaotic has been sand-blasted into a more nominally stillborn style, but the catatonia of the robotic latitudinal and longitudinal lines is its own form of glacial oblivion that suffocates you from behind. It is as if Hertzfeldt is daring us: the chaos of the modern world in all my other films, he says, is difficult, but wait until you see what the future has in store.
Specifically, Hertzfeldt molding his intentionally minimalist style to a futurist aesthetic boldly masters a sonic wail of a future, either a burned-over-district or a world where there never was much life to burn in the first place. The uninhabited frames – not only absent people, but absent representational meaning – are prominently abandoned, vacant limbos of unmentionable terror. When confronted with presence, life, and color, the film is no less welcoming; the technicolor showpieces of space and place are as indecipherable as the anemic white spaces in the film, the color not so much a birth of life as a futile implosion that lacks rhyme or reason.
It seems more sane, less radical on the surface, but the world presented in World of Tomorrow is no less stable. It’s only pretending to be. If earlier Hertzfeldt films presented full-blown chaos – a world where the animation threatened to blow up with every passing frame – World of Tomorrow’s horrors are more sinister and more hidden: this is a future where open-faced chaos has been overtaken by insidious chaos masquerading as order. You have to dig into it to discover how little this future makes sense, how much delight it takes in lying to you. Characters stand on flimsy lines that might as well drift off into nothingness, crumpling under the almost non-existent weight of the stick figures that pass for anonymous, placid, empty people in Hertzfeldt’s world. It is, in its own way, as depressingly inexplicable and verboten a view of the future as any film has ever imagined. It is a future without purpose, without salience, and without any cohesive sense of its own identity. The lines seem ordered into up-down, left-right realms, but the order only hides its own brand of entropy in the end.
Here we find Hertzfeldt’s true genius; most films with a barren, tragic view of the future are unable to envision anything other than a torrential, apocalyptic funk or an abominable autocratic sledgehammer. Hertzfeldt imagines neither, and instead he posits the future as a fugue state, a blank slate for impressing imagery. Little Emily (voiced with starry-eyed, spontaneous disinterest by Winona Mae) has been let in on the secret of a hopeless world, and Hertzfeldt’s film – full of sly, scabrous humor aplenty – pulls its best, and saddest, joke when it concludes with the murmur of Emily sent back to her own time, wandering off the screen to play, incapable of grasping anything she has just seen. Maybe, Hertzfeldt accepts, blissful ignorance is our only way out too.