Escape from Tomorrow. 2013. Directed & Written by Randy Moore.
Starring Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru, Lee Armstrong, Kimberly Ables Jindra, Trey Loney, & Amy Lucas.
Not Rated. 90 minutes.
Just the fact that Randy Moore’s film Escape from Tomorrow exists is a gift. Even if you don’t enjoy it there’s a guerrilla quality of filmmaking which grips tight, and the imagery, if anything, is impressive. Without permission from Disney, Moore and his crew infiltrated Disneyland and Walt Disney World with their minimal equipment, iPhones holding the scripts, and more. Afterwards, Moore absconded to South Korea (special effects provided by the same company who worked on The Host) where he edited the film, for fear Disney might do anything in their power to stop him from making it, let alone releasing it.
Sure enough, we’ve been graced with a daring, surreal piece of cinema due to his efforts, as well as the efforts of a dedicated crew and some talented actors. This vision of the happiest place on Earth grew out of Moore having visited the park as a kid, mixed up with memories and feelings from his life at the time. Like a cocktail of childhood dreams, as fantastical as they are terrifying.
This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Particularly if you’re American and you hold Disney sacred. But it isn’t only surrealism, there’s a genuine plot. Still, this is a divisive film. It attacks and deconstructs the American Dream, in no better place than Disneyland. So while it’s not as if Moore engages in blasphemy, to some it may feel that way. The famed park goes from the happiest place on Earth to a place filled with nightmares, a much different vision than what children experience, as we’re taken through in the perspective of an adult who’s not a carefree kid anymore.
“But you can‘t be happy all the time.”
Essentially, we begin right as the weight of adulthood and responsibility is
bearingcrushing down onto Jim (Roy Abramsohn). In his hotel room, on the last day of a family vacation, he finds out he’s fired from his job. His wife Emily (Elena Schuber) doesn’t know, he hides it from her. Thus begins the American Nightmare at Disneyland. Instead of that carefree enjoyment his children experience, Jim experiences a surreal, horrific park that seems directed at the deepest, darkest parts of his mind.
At its core, Escape from Tomorrow is about the existential trap of Disney’s attractions. In that the regular, everyday person like Jim is forking out big dollars to take his family on vacation. Simultaneously he loses his job, yet he can’t be happy: he’s at the happiest place on Earth, right? So, in a sense, this existential, twofold struggle between the part of him that’s desperately stressed and the other side which feels he has to keep up the illusion, to make sure his children, the other people in the park aren’t disturbed by his unhappiness in the very place that dictates you cannot be sad while you’re there.
If a dreamy place like Disneyland can actually be a physical space, then if the dream turns to nightmare this nightmarish headspace then is as real as the rides themselves. The deterioration of Jim’s life and marriage while in such a forcibly happy environment is like amplified tragedy at work and his surreal experience confronts us with a visual metaphor of this breakdown. Starting with ride disappointments, brief visions Jim has, seeing two recurring French girls and confronting Jim’s ugly, forbidden temptation; this last bit especially hits hard, because Disney is supposed to be so kid and youth friendly that a married family man like him lusting after these girls is even creepier than it would be in the outside, normal world. Moreover, kids, as in any bad marriage, take the brunt of what’s happening far too often, represented by Jim’s son vomiting, tarnishing the clean and pretty image of the park, plus his daughter tripping, skinning her knee in a nasty fall.
The surrealism makes the film what it is, a combination of absurdism and outright wild, hallucinatory imagery that somehow feels – for Jim and the viewer alike – of vivid consciousness. Right off the bat, the black-and-white cinematography does wonders by giving this very American movie that sense of a Hollywood classic, playing into the theme of Disneyland as an American dreamspace in a physical location before becoming horrifically surreal.
Added to that is the endless imagery. Often, Moore juxtaposes that happy ideal of Disney with an outright vulgarity, ugliness, or horror that resonates: Jim’s bloody toe + sock that gets progressively worse, symbolic of his mental state; Emily sees the French girls and their faces become ghoulish; even the princesses working at the park become call girls for Asian businessmen, deconstructing that almost holy image of the Disney princess as the iconography of innocence. This also leads to the wonderful comparison of Disney at day v. Disney at night, strikingly transitioned when Emily boils over and slaps her daughter across the face. The biggest, most striking piece is a brief hallucination of the EPCOT Center coming free from the foundation, rolling with an explosion over crowds of fleeing families, their perfect little vacation flattened on the concrete.
“Bad things happen everywhere. Especially here.”
Moore deconstructs the American ideal of Disney through Jim and his family’s nightmare vacation, but the other characters add to the surrealism of Escape from Tomorrow. For instance, the weepy nurse, whom Jim and his daughter visit after she scrapes her knee. The nurse breaks down, crying, almost a warning that things are not what they seem. More than that she’s a marker of the bits of absurdist humour weaved into the story. Nearly a Lynchian moment. Also, the creeper in the motorised chair who shows up before the nurse, again running into Jim when he’s cleaning his bloody sock in the washroom, and again after that, too. Just his smile, his voice, it’s all eerie and rife with absurdity. Again there’s a warning in the absurdism, telling Jim: this place ain’t right. If only he listened.
With a perfectly morbid end, suggesting the lengths to which Disney might go to protect their happiest place on Earth status so as not to disturb any guests, Escape from Tomorrow concludes a feverish vision of the American Dream subverted into the polar opposite, a quintessentially American Hell. Final moment is a cynical, chilling view of the sanitised, Disneyfied, picture perfect commercial that the company wants you to believe is the ONLY experience available at their perfect parks.
People are programmed to see Disney in a certain way, which is why this film will bother some people. They’ll say it’s dumb, or it makes no sense. Really, they’re afraid to admit that places made of dreams can easily be places made of nightmares. Disney’s postured as a park where they provide everyday people respite from life’ problems.
Therefore, the title: Escape from Tomorrow. It isn’t so much a play on the Tomorrowland attraction, first opened in 1955. Rather it’s a play on escaping one’s future, delaying tomorrow by going to Walt Disney World. But as the film wears on it’s an omen, ironically one from which there’s no escape for Jim. The film presents the park as a paradox: a place where you can go with your family to escape the responsibilities and concerns of the real world, but one where those same concerns are amplified in juxtaposition with such dream-like perfection, a place from which, ultimately, nobody might escape if the paradox takes its toll on their mind.