Monday, October 31, 2016

Review: Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

Not rated

Score: 3 out of 5

It's fundamentally impossible to talk about Escape from Tomorrow, an independent horror film about a trip to a theme park resort that goes horribly wrong, without talking about how it was made. Writer/director Randy Moore shot the film on location at Disney World, which by itself shouldn't be too impressive. After all, many films and TV shows have been shot at Disney theme parks, and the company loves to show off its tourist attractions. What sets Escape from Tomorrow apart, however, is the fact that a) it is a scathing attack on everything that Disney stands for, and b) it was shot without Disney's permission or knowledge. And they didn't just shoot a few scenes walking around the park with cameras, either; no, they shot nearly the entire movie there, filming in restaurants, hotels, and even smuggling cameras onto eight separate rides across the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Disney only found out about the film after it had premiered at Sundance and become the talk of Park City, and wisely, they realized that, if they so much as dared to try and block the film's release by that point (which they had both the means and the motive to do), it would merely make a lot of people very curious.

And honestly, the story of its production is arguably more interesting than anything that happens in the film itself. Once you get past the mind-screwy nature of the whole affair, you'll find a psychological horror film about a family man whose crumbling work and home lives finally snap within the Happiest Place on Earth. If anything, its more psychedelic edge does as much to detract from the film as it does to enhance it, which, when combined with its poor pacing, often had me wondering just when it was going to get to the point. Escape from Tomorrow is worth watching at least once just to admire the ingenuity of its guerrilla production, though its shaky qualities as a film on its own merits mean that it will likely be little more than a historical curiosity.

Our protagonist is Jim, a married father of two kids who is currently on the last day of his vacation at Disney World. At the hotel, he learns from his boss that he's been fired, causing the rest of the day to turn into a long downward spiral as he spends his time at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot failing to watch over his kids, hallucinating on It's a Small World, and ogling women other than his wife, most notably a pair of sexy French teenage girls who he keeps crossing paths with for some inexplicable reason. As the day goes on, things get progressively weirder, and involve a mad scientist, cat flu, a femme fatale who may or may not be the Evil Queen from Snow White, princesses who also work as high-class prostitutes, the revelation that his entire life is a lie (or not), and all the secrets of the park that Disney wants to keep under wraps. I don't think I can properly explain what happens during the finale, less because of spoilers and more because I still can't quite make sense of it all. I prefer to think of it all as metaphorical, of a man slowly losing his mind as all of the problems in his life run head-first into the saccharine image of the Walt Disney Company, the collision causing something deep within him to finally break. That theory, I feel, explains about 90% of what happened, though I still can't make heads or tails of the ending.

Stylistically, the fact that this film was made at all is enough to get me to forgive any technical faults. Randy Moore shot it in black and white to compensate for the lack of any artificial lighting, and while the reason for doing this was purely utilitarian, it gives the film a surreal quality that goes well with its equally surreal plot, especially when paired with the film's old-fashioned score that sounds like a warped take on a classic Disney film. It's a great film to look at, at the very least. There are occasional moments where it's clear that they filmed in front of green screens rather than on location, but it doesn't get in the way that much. It's in the pacing and structure where the film truly has problems. Especially in the first hour, there are long stretches where very little seems to happen, the family going about their business at Disney while Jim occasionally experiences some weird moments. The effect of this is mostly fairly boring, with the slow moments providing little context to the weird parts except to continue beating it into the viewer's head that Jim's life sucks and that Disney World is awful. One or two scenes of this would've been enough, but it turns repetitive after the fifth or sixth moment where Jim runs into the French girls. Characters appear out of nowhere and vanish just as quickly, and seem to exist adjacent to the main story rather than have any real importance in the long run. I was willing to forgive this for much of the first hour, as it felt like it was all building up to some grand moment or reveal. However, the ending explains little about anything we had just witnessed, only raising more questions about just how much of the film was Jim's delusion versus how much was Disney World actually being evil. The things that can be read into the film wind up coming out fairly contradictory, as either of the two explanations winds up forcing the viewer to discount several moments that only fit the other one. After the ending, so much of the film winds up feeling pointless. I liked it best when it was taking specific, pointed jabs at Disney, and it's clear that Moore was aiming to deconstruct the idealistic, happy image that the company puts forth and sells, but it failed to pull any of that into a coherent story or message.

The Bottom Line:

I'm bumping this film's score a point simply on the basis of the amount of guts it took to get it made and released; for that alone, it's worth watching once. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be watching it again, as despite some impressive visual design, it's a fairly clunky mess story-wise that never comes together, and never excels beyond the sum of its parts.

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