Review: Escape from Tomorrow
If Don Draper had taken Betty and the kids to Disneyland (circa season two, let's say), and had been fortified by something mysterious from Roger Sterling, and the whole thing had been shot covertly on film by Smitty and Kurt, the result might have been Escape from Tomorrow.
For those of you who don't watch Mad Men, let's just say the movie takes a Disney trip by your average All-American family and turns it completely on its head, with a few kicks in the teeth for good measure. Unfortunately, it moves slowly and ultimately relies too much on weirdness for weirdness' sake. The movie premiered at Sundance, screened at Fantastic Fest and is now available on VOD. It's screening in Austin this week as well.
Escape from Tomorrow potentially offers pleasure to its audience on two levels. The first is the traditional moviegoing experience, natch. But in addition, the movie is controversial -- and interesting -- because much of it was covertly shot at Disney World (including Epcot) and Disneyland. The filmmakers and actors would buy tickets to the parks and pretend to be regular visitors shooting family home video of their vacation antics. In reality, they were shooting a feature film, and had to manage all kinds of tricks to get the shots they needed, like racing around right when a park opened to get shots of deserted rides, and so forth.
As a result, the movie carries a behind-the-scenes peek-at-the-forbidden aspect that is irresistable. On that level alone, Escape from Tomorrow is worth a look. In fact, it's actually a little distracting, because you might pay more attention to the background than the story itself.
The story is not engaging enough to pull your attention away from the scenery. The plot takes awhile to get rolling and even then, it doesn't feel like much of a plot. A family is about to spend their last day at Disney World, when Jim (Roy Abramsohn) takes a call informing him that he's been laid off. He decides not to tell his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and small children and spoil their day, but the news makes him unable to focus on his family. He slowly becomes entranced by a pair of young French girls, to the point where he's making poor decisions and his wife becomes increasingly frustrated and disgusted.
"Okay," I thought. "So this is a movie about a guy who is thinking with a body part that is not his brain. I get it. Keep moving."
And then it gets surreal.
And then it gets even more surreal, to the point where you can't tell whether you're watching reality or dream/fantasy sequences. The problem is that it doesn't feel like strangeness with a purpose. The movie drifts from point to point with action or impetus to carry it forward, and no seeming allegory or message to anchor it.
The characters don't have enough depth for you to care about them -- Jim just feels like a sad sack, and his wife Emily is written to be little more than a nag. In fact, I tended to sympathize more with Emily -- frankly, any mom saddled with two kids in Disney World whose husband is being an asshole would be just as pissed off, and with full justification. I would love to see Escape from Tomorrow from her point of view.
But the actors convey no nuance and appear to have had no direction. The fault might be an inexperienced director -- Escape from Tomorrow is writer/director Randy Moore's first feature. Perhaps the circumstances under which the movie is shot did not favor quality acting.
After I saw the movie, someone explained to me what Escape from Tomorrow "really" meant -- that at a point I'd missed entirely, an event happened that led to such-and-such and therefore [I'm not going to spoil it]. The theory made sense, but if that was indeed the filmmakers' intent, the triggering event hadn't been underscored enough, nor were there further hints throughout the film. It does at least add some sense to the ending.
The movie does include really nice moments involving the locations -- for example, the inherent creepiness of the "It's a Small World" ride gets exploited beautifully. Other rides and attractions are manipulated slightly to add edginess of one kind or another.
I believe that if Escape from Tomorrow hadn't been set and shot covertly at Disney World -- that if it taken place at a fictional amusement park and shot on sets -- it would not have gathered a tenth of the attention it has received. The setting is indeed its source of charm and interest. Watch the movie with the attitude of a voyeur peeking through the keyhole at a different view of the Disney parks, but don't expect much from the people inhabiting that world.
Addendum: If you want to have that voyeuristic feeling without shelling out some cash and sitting through a dull story -- or if Escape from Tomorrow doesn't provide enough of that voyeurism for you -- Film School Rejects highlights three films streaming online that were shot clandestinely in Disney parks.