What Counts As ‘Good’ Sci-Fi? Looking At Don Hertzfeldt’s “World of Tomorrow”

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I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a movie ‘good’ ever since this year’s Oscar winners were announced back in February. This isn’t because I was displeased with the movies nominated for Best Picture, or the men for Best Actor, or the women for Best Actress, not even the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey somehow received a nomination. No, I was drawn to the animated shorts section in support of Don Hertzfeldt, my favourite filmmaker, and his film World of Tomorrow.

As an avid fan, I have seen every film he’s ever made, whether wonderful or horrible (and I’m not ashamed to say that he’s had one or two duds). Yet, when I watched World of Tomorrow for the first time, about a week or so before the nominations were announced, I found something different from anything he’d done before: a sci-fi flick.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction from the bottom of my heart. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times on opening weekend and I am not ashamed in the least. However, when I watch a Don Hertzfeldt film, I expect to see less ‘galaxy far, far away’ and more ‘so deep I can’t even see you anymore.’ As an imaginative and angsty indie filmmaker, Hertzfeldt is more likely to deal with the ethical and moral issues of whether Han shot first than actually animate a blaster-burned, bug-eyed bounty hunter. And yet, the latter doesn’t seem so impossible after watching World of Tomorrow. Heck, we even get an appearance by a snake boy! (A Hutt maybe?)

I’ll keep my review short, as I’m obviously a little biased, and if you wanted a true review, you’d be on IMDb, so let’s not kid ourselves. In simple terms, if you and I are of similar mind and thought any of his other films were genius, this one will appeal to you. However, for the sake of most of the population who are unfamiliar with this man’s work, it is important to know a bit about his other films. Generally speaking, they’re always very introspective and character-driven, and deal with grand themes regarding the nature of reality or the human condition.

World of Tomorrow fulfills all of these criteria handily.

I have a few friends who would balk at my assertion that a film could be sci-fi through and through, yet still bear these stereotypical qualities of a ‘good’ film. Nevertheless, that’s what Hertzfeldt has made. The plot focuses on a girl named Emily, who is contacted by, and then transported via time travel, to her third generation clone in the far-flung future, who retains all of the memories of ‘Emily Prime,’ and thus is essentially the same person. You don’t really find anything more introspective or character-driven than that.

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Furthermore, as it runs its course, the film presents many philosophical quandaries via these two awkward protagonists, including but not limited to: What is love? What makes the world beautiful? What role does sadness play in being human? At what point will technology end our humanity? And so on. Themes don’t often get much grander than that in my experience.

Now, if you’re anything like me, you read that last segment with disdain when I implied it was surprising that a sci-fi film could be more than aliens and blaster rifles, and were screaming, “Yes, many do raise the same philosophical quandaries, you blithering idiot!”

I would agree with you (except maybe on the idiot part). However, society’s mark on me would not.

Did you know that a science-fiction film has never once won an Academy Award for Best Picture? Oscar history has been one of drama after hard-boiled drama scooping up the top prizes. Occasionally, a comedy will rise up an remind everyone that the world is not entirely terrible all the time, but science fiction, fantasy (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), and other speculative genres are typically shoved into the categories of Costume Design, Visual Effects, or the ever-popular Sound Mixing.

It would be a sweeping overgeneralization to say that most people, or even most film critics, don’t take speculative genres seriously. But for the fans of such films, it often feels that way. We are often relegated into a ‘nerd’ culture that the media clearly sees as painfully other, comical, and even downright silly. Watch a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory if you have any doubt.

But maybe even that is putting aside the issue too easily. It’s very simple to blame the mainstream society that has clearly ‘othered’ us nerds for our nerdy misfortune. At some point, we need to ask ourselves why our speculative films are viewed with such disregard.

“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” is a phrase I hear getting thrown around a lot lately. If we can’t respect our own movies, how can we expect anyone else to? This is not to say that we should blindly love every movie adaptation of our favourite book (I’m going to be honest, the movies based on the Percy Jackson series sucked), nor do I mean to focus solely on adaptations.

My point is that speculative films should contain the things that made us fall in love with these genres in the first place. To beat on Percy Jackson again (sorry Chris Columbus, but you peaked with Harry Potter), I loved the books because they could weave crazy magic and monsters with characters, themes, and situations I could actually care about, whereas the film was pure consumerist fluff.

In a world where commodification is everything, the artistry that comes with the massive imaginations of speculative writers and filmmakers is quickly getting sucked away.

This, in essence, is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see World of Tomorrow nominated for an Oscar. Yes, consumerism puts more and more pressure on filmmakers to produce speculative fluff that will make you eat popcorn and feel good, but this film, and other films like it (I could probably write a complete rant on The Martian) show what can happen when filmmakers care more about the quality of the story they’re telling than the size of the explosions.

Perhaps sci-fi needs to get a little bit more down to Earth in order to reach for the stars again.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

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