My mother and sister were once trapped for two and a half hours in the “It’s A Small World” attraction at Disney World. I hadn’t a clue what their ordeal was like until I suffered through Escape From Tomorrow, which at least was an hour shorter .
This is the type of movie that gets so much attention for the story behind its production and its so-called “audacity” that the poor quality of the finished product becomes almost irrelevant. Roy Abramsohn, a sort of poor man’s Steven Carrell, is Jim, who learns that he has lost his job on his last day of vacations at Walt Disney World. This is just the beginning of his terrible, no-good, just-plain-awful day, as he accompanies his wife (in the film’s lone piece of genuine wit, he describes her as a cross between Emily Dickinson and Tina Fey; as played by Elena Schuber, she’s like a shriller version of Teri Garr) and two young children (a son and daughter, both as dully written and one-dimensional as children in the movies usually are) for what he hopes will be a relaxing time but as almost always turns out in the movies, things don’t go his way. Spotting two cheery teenage girls from France, also in search of amusements (apparently, Euro Disney wouldn’t do) triggers a strange obsession in him. He soon starts following them, disregarding his family totally. That’s when the trouble starts; he soon starts drinking heavily and begins to see the darkness behind the sunny facade of the fantasy world, and all sorts of strange and awful things-and strange and awful people-start to surround him. He also encounters a would-be Witch with a hypnotic crystal, discovers the secret beneath Spaceship Earth, and maybe other potentially interesting things happen, but I’m too bored even just thinking about the movie to care at this point.
Sure, it all starts promisingly enough, especially in an early hallucinatory scene in the aforementioned “It’s a Small World” ride, where the cheery marionettes suddenly turn into grinning monsters, and the protagonist starts to see his wife and children as distortions of their true selves. If the movie had continued in this vein, being something like a modern take on Carnival of Souls or Night Tide, both of which made effective use of actual amusement park location filming to create memorable tales of characters caught between mundane reality and nightmarish fantasy, it might have been worth watching. Unfortunately, writer-director Randy Moore has made two fatal mistakes. One is trying to cram too many story ideas at once instead of maintaining a coherent narrative, an error all too common among independent, first-time directors who are also their own screenwriters, with no one there to tell them cut. It should have been decided early on whether or not the film was to be science-fiction satire, black comic horror, or devoid of fantastic elements to begin with; nothing in it seems to gel or fit together right. In the only other really memorable sequence, Jim finds himself imprisoned in a sterile laboratory hidden beneath Epcot Center, and subjected to tests by a mad German (of course) scientist who is himself not what he seems. It’s a scene reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, itself an overrated “classic.” If the movie had continued along with this particular story thread all the way to end, or better yet, had been the main plotline from the very beginning (using the amusement park setting the same way Godard used the modernist architecture of Paris to create his future world), then this ride might have been worth the price of admission. The sloppy and amateurish narrative construction extends to other areas as well. We are also somehow expected to believe that all the events and terrible things that befall Jim occur in a single day, yet anyone who has been at Walt Disney World even once will pick up immediately that it is utterly impossible for this to happen. There is the implication that the fantastic elements are all just a hallucination, but it is all far too vague to be certain, and far too frustrating to care about. As annoying as movies that blend reality with their lead character’s subjective fantasy and expect us to figure out which is which can be, movies too sloppy to care are even more irritating.
Even worse, Moore has given us a nominal hero who is not only as frequently boring as the film itself, but is even more repulsive than the often unpleasant imagery the film proffers when not filming amusement park attractions. When Jim first starts following the two teenagers, it’s creepy, not funny. When his Humbert Humbert-ish obsession with trailing them compels him to endanger his son not once but twice (the first time by forcing him to go on Space Mountain him against his protests; the poor lad winds up losing his lunch whereas I merely lost my glasses) all sympathy is gone. Utter disgust is the only response when he abandons his daughter for some afternoon delight with the Witch (in a particularly vile move by the director, they leave their kids in the adjacent room while they have their quickie) and when he gets sickeningly drunk at Epcot Center, in wince-inducing scenes apparently intended to be funny. He does not deserve to be a father, much less a lead character. I don’t know if Jim’s ultimate fate was intended to funny or sad or both, but it is pathetic and suitably disgusting, the type of gross-out scene that indie films seem to indulge in with the excuse that they are being “transgressive.” The final shot is another classic example of a twist ending that Stevie Wonder could probably see coming from three miles away.
Supposedly, Escape From Tomorrow is intended to be some sort of social commentary on consumer culture and the way in which mass entertainment winds up suffocating our lives. If there was indeed any attempt at a coherent message on the subject of consumerism, the movie has completely failed in that regard. If it was trying to be anti-entertainment, it has succeeded completely.