SUMMARY: A meditation on the meaning of existence which charts the evolution of human beings from prehistory to the distant future.
WHY IT’S HERE: Having achieved internet fame with his Oscar-nominated classic ‘Rejected’, Don Hertzfeldt continued to assert himself as one of the most vital animators working today with the massively ambitious ‘The Meaning of Life’. Although the style is recognisably Hertzfeldt’s, the tone of ‘The Meaning of Life’ is quite different from his previous work, which lead many fans of ‘Rejected’ and ‘Billy’s Balloon’ to write it off as pretentious (often a code-word for ‘I don’t want to think’) and demand a return to what they expected. But Hertzfeldt was growing as a talent and commented “I don’t often make the same sort of movie twice in a row. It’s always been whatever’s next in my head. From a commercial standpoint I guess I’ve made some pretty inscrutable decisions, like following up “Rejected” with a sprawling abstract film about human evolution, but it’s really just been whichever ideas won’t go away at the time. There’s always a lot of new things I’d like to try…”
‘The Meaning of Life’ is certainly a unique piece of work, although some drew favourable comparisons with Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for its massive scope and use of classical music on the soundtrack. ‘The Meaning of Life’ opens with a hysterically funny four minute segment in which mankind evolves into a rabble of wandering, aggressive, confused, lost people all walking back and forth and repeating one phrase. The phrases Hertzfeldt puts in their mouths are hilarious and perfectly matched with their mannerisms, but as the number of figures on the screen multiplies it becomes harder and harder to hear what everyone is saying. This sequence is endlessly rewatchable, as the viewer tends to pick out new details each time. The sequence ends with the extinction of humans as we know them. What then follows is a series of evolutionary steps in which crowds of increasingly less-human-looking creatures behave in a similar way to humans, albeit with their pointless blatherings in different languages. The film concludes with a discussion of the meaning of life itself, between what appears to be an adult male and a child of a future incarnation of mankind. The discussion is lengthy and emphatic but, of course, we are not able to understand it… yet!
‘The Meaning of Life’ has been seen by many as cynical, interspersing images of infuriating hustle-bustle with visions of the universe which dwarf any importance we might hang on everyday concerns. But I think this is an oversimplification of Hertzfeldt’s intentions. Yes, he contrasts the vast expanses of space and time with the small concerns of humanoids, but he does so with great reverence for the unknowable wonders of the universe and does not discourage us from speculating on the meaning of our existence, merely suggests that the odds of us ever nailing down an ultimate answer are miniscule. Even the answer presented in an alien language at the film’s end seems to be spat with a petulance and disdainful certainty which suggests we’ll still be arrogantly enamoured of our own attempts to unlock the mysteries of life millions of years from now.