In just 16 minutes, Don Hertzfeldt‘s 2015 animated short World of Tomorrow built a complete vision of the future, investigated the terrors of technological advancement, and ruminated on the power and pitfalls of the human condition with depth and imagination some sci-fi writers spend a career trying to achieve. So, you know, no pressure or anything when it his follow-up World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts.
Fortunately, Hertzfeldt has done the impossible and made lightning strike twice. Or actually, a third time, if you count his staggering feature It’s Such a Beautiful Day. His sequel sci-fi is every bit as stunning, inspiring, heartbreaking and soul-crushing as the first film, which saw a young girl visited by her third generation clone and flung through time, where she witnessed the desperate dehumanization of a society determined to hold on their past and their memories. “Now is the envy of all of the dead.”
The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts is a true sequel in every sense of the word. First of all, it’s bigger and longer, running a lovely 22 minutes. It’s bigger in other ways too. Hertzfeldt may be exploring wildly existential concepts within the sci-fi construct, but he is still operating within in the genre, and the filmmaker delivers all the world-building you’d expect from any good sci-fi sequel. He colors in the details of the post-clone society, exposing us to new facets of life there, if it can be called life, and he offers hints to what happened to the human race after we last saw them.
Hertzfeldt also advances his visual style and animation techniques in pursuit of that goal, exploring the outer reaches of space, time, and the human mind with even more exploration than we saw in the first film. Of course, he utilizes his signature stick figures to create his characters, but he also plays around freely with color, texture, and dimension this time around, creating backgrounds and scenescapes that verge on photoreal at times. More often though, they redefine or recontextualize the mind-bending imagery he designed for World of Tomorrow to match the mind-bending ideas.
Most importantly, Hertzfeldt also advances the story of Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s niece, Winona Mae) and her generations of Emily clones, who return to her once again as an oblivious child. I don’t think this film could be spoiled even if I tried, but fair warning, I’m going to go into some plot details here. This time, Emily is coloring away, enjoying the carefree recesses of childhood when she is once again visited by a third generation clone of herself (animator Julia Pott returns to voice the role). However, her new visitor is not the same third generation clone — this one is an incomplete backup copy created to upload Emily’s consciousness, but the Earth is destroyed and Emily’s bloodline along with it, leaving this backup without a sense of self. So, since she can’t get it from the third generation Emily, she goes right back to the Prime source.
What happens next is a journey inward through Emily’s mind, pure and vibrant and settled in the now, and the mind of the empty Emily clone, who has had a miserable existence. Whereas in the child’s mind we see creation, in the clone’s mind we see the “bog of realism” where glimmers of hope are drowned when they become too painful to hold on to. It’s a bit like Inside Out if the film wasn’t made for children, but despairing philosophical adults.
Hertzfelt’s message and themes here largely remain the same; our power is in the present, our anguish is in dooming ourselves to obsess and relive our past. Our memories feel precious, after all, what is our identity without them? But they can be prisons, dooming us to redundant cycles that rob our original experiences of their power and, in turn, rob the now of its joy. He has a created a film that explores these concepts on existential levels, but also quite literally in the plot, with an astonishing work of science fiction. This story works in loops, in tiny repeating patterns and I have no doubt that a second (or third or fourth viewing) will yield even higher rewards. As it is, Hertzfeldt lays in lines and visual gags that pay off in little cycles, demanding that you keep up and pay attention and have a damn good laugh.
That’s the thing about The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts — just as the first film was, the sequel is painfully hilarious and bursting with heart. It might take a little chunk of your soul and rattle the mind, but it’s the contrast of innocence and suffering are so pure and anti-cynical. If Hertzfeldt’s fearful vision of the future feels too real, so does the raw innocence of Emily Prime. We are responsible for what we make of our minds and our time, and once again Hertzfeldt has found a way to remind you of that with a bracing and beautiful look the truths we too rarely face.