ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW Review: Mouse-1, Guerrilla-0
Relying on gimmickry to get people to see a movie is nothing new. Examples of this include Odorama (1981’s Polyester), Duo-Vision (1973’s Wicked, Wicked), D-Box (2009’s Fast & Furious), Emergo (1959’s House on Haunted Hill), 3D (2013’s Gravity), and many others. All of these instances, though, are employed as part of the technical presentation of the film or the audience’s physical experience while watching it. Gimmicks that are part of the actual film itself are a little less common but no less recognizeable. They include multiple endings (1985’s Clue), real onscreen deaths (1978’s Faces of Death), real onscreen sex (2006’s Shortbus), and found footage of horrific events (1999’s The Blair Witch Project).
In a marketplace crowded with franchises, A-listers, and Oscar-contenders, a gimmick might be a fledgling filmmaker’s only chance of being noticed. So seems to be the case in the latest gimmick entry, writer/director Randy Moore‘s Escape From Tomorrow. The premise is that it was shot on location at Disney World. The gimmick is that it was done guerrilla-style and without Disney’s permission. The result, like most gimmicky movies, is it will be remembered first for the how interesting the gimmick is and second for how bad the film is.
Jim’s (Roy Abramsohn) Disney vacation takes a dreadful turn when he receives a call from his boss saying he’s lost his job. Jim keeps the news to himself so as to spare his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and kids Sara and Elliot (Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton) a sad final day at the theme park, but the devastating news wreaks havoc on his psyche. While on the “It’s A Small World After All” ride, Jim hallucinates frightening character-based images. He has a similar hallucination involving his son.
After having romantic advances rebuffed by his wife while in the back seat of the four-passenger Winnie the Pooh ride, Jim’s stress escalates into a full-blown midlife crisis. When he catches the attention of a pair of flirtatious young French girls, Sophie and Isabelle (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru), he becomes obsessed with following them across the parks. They notice him, too, and they don’t seem to mind the attention. It’s during a break in this pursuit that things take an even darker turn.
The conceit behind Escape From Tomorrow seems so very clever: shooting a full-length feature film in Disney’s parks without their permission! And it was helped by buzz at Sundance and the fact that Disney, who many expected would send in the lawyer equivalent of Seal Team Six to crush the thing, did nothing about it. David slays Goliath!
The gimmick, really, is a superficial one. While the logistics of the shoot were probably a nightmare and their execution should be commended (consider what it takes to shoot a movie under the best of circumstances), walking around Disney with a video camera isn’t filmmaking – it’s tourism. This gives the so-called gimmick about a 10-minute shelf life, meaning once the novelty of “Oh look! The teacup ride! I’ve been on that!” has passed, there’s still 80 minutes of movie remaining, and nearly every tick of that clock is dreadful.
The midlife crisis that Jim experiences is more than the pursuit of youth – it’s the pursuit of youths. The two girls he stalks across the parks – to the detriment of his own children, I might add – are clearly underage, but that doesn’t stop Jim. And when your 8-year-old son is afraid to get on Space Mountain, but you drag him on anyway because two teen girls are riding it, you aren’t a man lost – you’re a pedophile. Humber Humbert + Mickey Mouse = Deviant Daddy. I’ll pass, thanks.
Had the film been that at a higher level – a drama about one man’s last chance to recapture his youth through reckless behavior at the happiest place on earth (he actually does this when he goes on a weapons-grade drinking binge), and his struggle with how he would return to adulthood the next day (the title even suggests that he is trying to avoid that), it still would have been offensive, but at least a clearer narrative would have been present.
Instead, it takes a left turn at crazy, melding satire and surrealism into a David Lynch fever dream, complete with secret scientists, princesses as prostitutes, neck-braced tourists confined to scoot-arounds, bondage, something called “cat flu,” and more. And it’s all so muddy that it leaves you with more questions than answers. I don’t mind discussion points at the end of a film. I don’t mind asking someone what their interpretation of something is. But when I leave a theater wondering what just happened … being surreal becomes being convoluted.
I think Moore had a good idea here. I also like the notion of the park as the setting for a midlife crisis. Perhaps if Jim were in pursuit of a princess instead of foreign teen tourists, I could have gotten behind this a little more. Still lecherous? Sure. But at least he can make a better connection back to his own childhood, and chances would be much better that the object of his lust would be, you know, legal.
Instead, the film meanders between garden-variety weird and full-tilt bizarre. I suspect that’s borne of Moore not being a strong enough writer to design a good story within the confines of what he could execute technically. In the absence of that, he took his guerrilla shoot and added a gonzo story that simply doesn’t work.
I suspect that one day (and probably soon), Escape From Tomorrow will achieve cult status and become a darling of the midnight screening circuit, complete with quote-alongs and costume contests and maybe even full participation a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Until then, and no matter how small the world is after all, avoid this film.