Despite an uneven narrative that seeks to channel David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, Escape From Tomorrow has a clever black and white visual style with awkward green-screen effects that isn’t precisely beautiful, but nonetheless always accomplishes its prime objective: fueling surrealism. The visuals leave us to question every event in the picture, making us wonder whether or not what we see is actually happening.
Did some Asian businessmen really overtly grab Disney princesses’ private parts? Did Jim (Roy Abramsohn) really sleep with that woman not his wife, who may or may not have been a witch, and who may or may not have kidnapped his daughter while he lusted after girls far too young, who may or may not have invited him to join their frivolity? That question is convoluted, of course, but intentionally so. When Escape From Tomorrow succeeds, it’s because it forces us to pose such queries.
Unfortunately for Writer/Director Randy Moore, the movie isn’t always successful. It drags near the beginning, after Jim loses track of Isabelle and Sophie (Annet Mahendru and Danielle Safady) for the first time, and again in the middle before he and his wife (Elena Schuber) have a long overdue argument inside Epcot. Then, it gets downright silly in a final act that feels entirely different from what has come before.
The film struggles when it is at its most literal, telling the story of a strained family’s terrible day at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Why? Because these literal scenes have a different tone from the experimental moments; they show us a family we believe could actually exist, one that might not be all that different from our own or others we have met, whereas the surreal sequences are something very different. In contrast to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), the fantastically surreal and literally plausible never fuse all that well.
Perhaps that is why Escape From Tomorrow’s final act is unsatisfying. Surreal experimental fiction can, and often does, work well when odd twists take over, but only if what has come before makes us comfortable with the possibility that we will eventually go down some unexpected paths. We don’t know what the surprises will be, but we know there will be some. Escape From Tomorrow teaches us that we cannot be certain of reality, but it doesn’t teach us that we should expect the sorts of dramatic twists that could result in the movie becoming fantastical science fiction horror.
Moore’s other great failure is that Escape From Tomorrow doesn’t have much to say about consumerism, emotional stability, reality or human relationships. It hints at bigger themes, like the ways our culture’s obsession with grandiose entertainment can limit our joy in life, but it ultimately sets those observations aside and tries to shock us with imagery instead. Escape From Tomorrow doesn’t really critique Disney World. Or anything else.
None of that is to say the movie is terrible. Again, the visual style is captivating and is helped by a relatively short running time that prevents the images from ever becoming stale.
Moreover, the performances are solid all around.
And some of the camerawork is downright fascinating, giving us terrific perspective on a theme park that seduces much of the world.
In other words, there are enough merits here that this flawed film remains mostly watchable, even if they don’t make it particularly good.