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World of Tomorrow 3 is an epic about star-crossed lovers who haven’t quite met yet

Don Hertzfeldt’s dreamy, beloved animation series continues

A World of Tomorrow 3 character stands in a surreal, distorted purple landscape Image: Don Hertzfeldt / Bitter Films

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How far would you go for love? For the titular protagonist of Don Hertzfeldt’s latest short animated film, World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime, the answer is both inspiring and unsurprising. The real interesting question, at least as far as Hertzfeldt’s film is concerned, is this: once you’ve reached your destination, what would you be willing to do to protect even the possibility of that love, even at the expense of yourself?

Hertzfeldt’s first World of Tomorrow short, released back in 2015, was generally hailed as one of science fiction’s great stories — a major accomplishment for an independent director who had never technically produced a science-fiction film before. Aside from being a disarmingly irreverent comedy about a little girl named Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s 4-year-old niece Winona Mae) who is visited by an adult clone of herself from the future, World of Tomorrow was a stirring, melancholy ode to mortality, love, and the human condition. Over the unassuming space of its 17-minute runtime, it probes headier questions than what most tentpole features even acknowledge. “Do not lose time on daily trivialities,” Emily’s future clone tells her before saying goodbye. “Do not dwell on petty detail. For all of these things melt away, and drift apart within the obscure traffic of time. Live well, and live broadly. You are alive and living now. Now is the envy of all of the dead.”

The first World of Tomorrow short and its 2017 follow-up, Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, aren’t just excellent science fiction, they’re meditations on the paradoxical impermanence and stubborn persistence of love and memory, in all their multifarious forms. They stretch through the incalculably vast expanse of space and time, as animated parables that extol the virtues of introspection while cautioning viewers about the perils of living too deeply in the past.

Like its predecessors, World of Tomorrow Episode Three is a love story. Centering on David Prime, a character briefly mentioned in the series’ previous installments, the film follows his multiple incarnations as he’s visited by the vision of a clone of a woman he has never met. She urges him to ensure that someday, some version of himself will one day meet her and fall deeply in love with her, however briefly.

“I may never be able to encounter a version of you again, but maybe it is possible for one of our distant copies to one day reunite. They would be so happy to see each other,” an Nth-generation clone of Emily tells David as she embeds the memory of her message into the mind of his younger self, rippling through the folds of time to reach him in the film’s present. His mission clear, David Prime immediately resolves himself to unpack the data packet of instructions that the Emily clone left for him to follow. He plans to journey to the far corners of time and space for the sake of love, but to decipher the instructions, he must relinquish something of himself.

While in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek gallows humor of the first two installments, World of Tomorrow Episode 3 breaks from its predecessors in several ways, expanding viewers’ understanding of the series’ universe, while keeping just enough details on the periphery to keep everyone wondering. The most immediate and notable break from the previous two films is the perspective change. The voice acting in World of Tomorrow was praised as one of the film’s most powerful aspects, pieced together from recordings of Hertzfeldt’s niece’s conversations in 2013, with the more structured responses coming from animator Julia Pott.

The result was a comedic masterstroke, juxtaposing Mae’s ebullient improvisational babble and Potts’ deadpan comic timing to create one of the memorable comedic duos in animated film. “You can’t fake what it’s like to actually have a conversation with a 4-year-old,” Hertzfeldt told Cut Print Film’s Chris Evangelista in 2015. “It was sort of like working with an improvisational actor who happened to be insane.”

Mae has naturally grown out of the role, so Emily Prime is nowhere to be found in World of Tomorrow Episode Three, but her presence and importance is unmistakably felt. In her stead, series newcomer Jack Parrett voices the young David who’s visited by Emily’s clone, while the character of David Prime communicates through a series of unintelligible grunts and screams. Julia Potts reprises her role as Emily Prime’s clone, and while the comedic dynamic isn’t a one-to-one match with that of the previous films, the film still retains its deadpan existentialist charm.

Another especially noteworthy aspect of World of Tomorrow Episode Three is the film’s background and layout animations. The previous two films were exercises in expressionist abstraction, with floating planes and globular masses of visual noise that bear a modest resemblance to Chuck Jones’ abstract space-age designs (à la 1958’s Hare-Way to the Stars) , but crossed with a Kandinsky painting brought to life. At the same time, they feel like something unmistakably of Hertzfeldt’s own creation. Hertzfeldt broadens the visual scope of the series’ universe by using more photorealistic backgrounds and textures to depict alien worlds and adjacent temporal possibilities.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three is the series’ longest installment, with a runtime of just over half an hour. And every second of that is packed to the brim with a wealth of fastidious detail and disarming charm. Hertzfeldt has crafted what feels like a capstone to the series, elaborating on and tying up loose plot threads, with thematic throughlines sprinkled throughout the first and second film that originally seemed like offhand jokes. The Absent Destinations of David Prime is an inspired, hilarious story of love and perseverance pushed to the brink of the known universe and the limits of common sense. It’s a fitting addition to one of the most intriguing science-fiction series in animation.

World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime is now streaming on Vimeo on Demand.