With Escape From Tomorrow, first-time director Randy Moore has provided us with nothing less than a one-of-a-kind film, and for that alone we should be enormously thankful. How often do we see a film deserving of that label? How often do we sit in a theater, baffled and delighted and inspired by the sheer ballsiness and originality playing out in front of our eyes? It takes fearlessness, luck, and a whole lot of ambition to create a film that’s truly “one-of-a-kind”, and when we encounter it, we damn well oughtta cherish it. After all, isn’t a genuinely unique film the highest high a film junkie can chase after?
It’s not that I believe another film like Escape From Tomorrow will never be made. If the logline is “A family experiences the disturbing underbelly of a theme park while on vacation”, well, I can easily imagine a dozen variations on that concept, each landing on screens with varying degrees of success. None of those, however, could ever land with the same impact that Escape From Tomorrow does. The rub here is that the impact of Moore’s film owes a bit more to the circumstances under which the film was made than it does to the narrative, themes, or performances on display.
For some, that rub’s going to be a speedbump: the jaw-dropping nerve that went into making it will carry a charge strong enough to overcome whatever failings the screenplay may have. For others, it will be an insurmountable wall: yes, the fact that the film exists is staggering, but wouldn’t it be better if it went a little farther? I’ve heard this debate play out between enough viewers over the past few days to recognize that Escape From Tomorrow is almost certainly destined to be known for its divisiveness just as much as it is for its miraculous existence, but I’m alright with that. The other thing about one-of-a-kind films is, they almost never please everyone (see also: Eraserhead).
Moore’s film begins with Jim White (Roy Abramsohn, selling his character like he's got something to prove) receiving a phone call wherein his offscreen boss fires him and recommends that he visit the Soarin’ ride at Epcot all in the same breath. Jim’s devastated, but—this being the last day of the family’s vacation—he decides not to trouble his wife (Elena Schuber, bringing dimension to what might've been nothing more than a "nagging wife" stereotype in lesser hands) with the news. They head out for a day at the park, and almost immediately Jim’s grip on reality starts to slip: he sees evil on the faces of the puppets inside It’s A Small World, watches in horror as his son’s eyes suddenly turn jet-black, and doesn’t even try to be inconspicuous about leering at a couple of Lolita-esque French teens while in his wife’s presence. He’s coming unhinged, but it’s hard to tell if the reality shift has more to do with his obviously troubled family life, his sudden unemployment…or something more insidious happening at the Magic Kingdom.
To that end, Moore’s screenplay doesn’t offer many definitive answers, which may or may not be a problem for you as a viewer. For my money, the film would have made a fatal misstep if it had attempted to spell everything out for us, and after two viewings I’m convinced that there are a number of threads scattered around for die-hard fans to pick up and follow if they’d like to try and piece things together. Symbolism is everywhere here*, and moments that seem like throwaway gags in the film’s first act end up seeming much more important later in the film. I’m not convinced that it all adds up to a coherent “solution” (or even that it's trying to), but it’ll definitely be fun to sort through the puzzle pieces on subsequent viewings. The second time around, I definitely picked up on a few things I'd missed on the previous viewing, and that makes me curious about what else I might find lurking in this film's cracks.
A few things worth noting: though the film is getting a lot of attention for its disturbing set pieces, I don’t feel like it’s getting enough attention for how goddamn funny it can be. Almost everything’s underlined by a darkly comic tone that works very well within the reality Moore establishes here, and on more than one occasion I found myself laughing out loud while being simultaneously creeped out. I wasn’t prepared to walk out of Escape From Tomorrow considering it a “dark comedy”, but, well, here we are. Secondly, cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham deserves major praise for the work he’s turned in. When I learned about how Escape From Tomorrow was made, I did not expect that its look and composition would be one of its most admirable qualities; indeed, I expected it to look like the work of someone who shot a movie while being chased. Instead, Graham’s black-and-white photography is remarkably confident, gorgeously composed and never once betraying the fact that…well, that (technically speaking) they kinda did make this thing while being chased. It looks so much better than I ever would have expected it to look (“Was that a fucking crane shot?!”).
Finally: composer Abel Korzeniowski (nominated for a Golden Globe back in 2009 for his work on the Coen Brothers' A Simple Man) proves just as valuable an asset to Moore's film as Graham does in his role as cinematographer. The film simply wouldn't be as effective without the work Korzeniowski turns in here, a fact that's especially apparent on second viewing. I've seen major studio releases with film scores that weren't as memorable or as inspired as the one employed here; it's the first film score I've heard in a long time that I'd be interested in owning. It's excellent work on Korzeniowski's part, but it also speaks to Moore's level of commitment: how many other filmmakers would have shortchanged themselves on the score in favor of devoting resources to, say, more elaborate special effects, or another "Holy shit!"-inducing set piece?
Escape From Tomorrow arrives in theaters and VOD on October 11th, and I strongly suggest that you make a point of seeing it as soon as possible. I expect that film geeks are going to be talking about this one (and in sometimes tedious detail) for a long time to come, and you're not going to want to have some of the film's weirder detours spoiled for you before you can experience it for yourself. Walk into the experience knowing that it won't be for everyone, that it won't be providing you with any pat answers, and that-- in all likelihood-- you'll never see anything quite like it again.
*= My freshman English professor presented The Secret of Walter Mitty as a story about impotence. I wonder what he’d make of Jim White’s adventures in Florida.