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Film Review: Escape from Tomorrow

Escape from Tomorrow (2013; Directed by Randy Moore)

“No one can be happy all the time,” a grown woman dressed like a cartoon witch says late in Escape from Tomorrow. “It’s just not possible.” The Disney empire has reaped enormous profits for decades by begging to differ, or at least by offering a hyper-controlled hermetic experience in locations constructed to maximize childlike wonder and delight for a short time (and a generous fee). Disneyland, Disneyworld, and its various spin-offs and attendant theme parks were masterminded by Walt Disney (quite possibly the greatest visionary American capitalism has ever produced) as physical but also inherently psychic spaces. Later consumerist simulacra like West Edmonton Mall and Las Vegas followed Disneyland’s lead of amalgamating atmospheres, stereotypes, architecture and cultural elements from across the globe into a single compound of directed leisure and spending, but could never match the heady mix of fantasy, imagination, and nostalgia (for a faded childhood just as for a faded America) that Disney parks evoke so strongly. Disney’s cultural products have almost always hewed to this feeling of unquenchable optimism and happiness, and the Disney theme parks are sealed utopian spaces where the visitor can positively marinate in its saturating sunny liquid.

Writer-director Randy Moore has a different view of the Magic Kingdom, and his unsettling but amateurish surrealist horror perspective as expressed in this film makes it very clear that happiness is not possible for him, at least not at Florida’s Disneyworld and Epcot Centre. The most unfortunate thing about Escape from Tomorrow is that the story of its production is so much more interesting and impressive than the actual movie itself, which is fairly mediocre. It’s a boilerplate Lynchian/Kubrickian pastiche with little flow, sense of pace, or storytelling acumen, forcing pat “disturbing” imagery into the margins of a leisurely family vacation to the clean-scrubbed theme park of pre-packaged joyful innocence.

So let’s tell the interesting story. Moore had deeply mixed youthful memories of Disneyworld, having visited it often with his father after his parents’ divorce and the eventual breakdown of his relationship with his dad. For his first feature, Moore conceived of an odd arthouse vision of a deeply Freudian nature about a recently-fired husband and father of two who has a terrible, frightening experience over a day in the park. But in order to make the movie he envisioned, he and his production crew and his actors had to film at Disneyworld (as well as at Disneyland in California), entirely without the permission of the House of Mouse, famously and aggressively litigious when it comes to their copyrights and quite sensitive to negative portrayals of their products of the sort that Moore had planned.

Shooting surreptitiously on Canon digital cameras in black and white, storing the script on as well as recording sound and dialogue with iPhones, and entering the parks in small groups to avoid arousing the suspicion of security, Moore and his team managed to shoot the footage they needed on the actual rides and in real park locations without official permission before finishing the film on soundstages and with computer effects (which are a bit crude, but it is a low-budget indie film after all). As Drew McWeeny states in his review, the brazen quality of the movie is its most salient and exciting feature. It doesn’t seem possible anymore to make a film that is really, truly getting away with something (although Disney’s response to it has fallen somewhere between measured and indifferent, suggesting that perhaps the subversiveness of the thing was overestimated), but Escape from Tomorrow is cinematic art as petty crime, with the same juvenile rush of excitement at the mere prospect of disobedience.

The film’s narrative is less fascinating. It follows Jim (Roy Abramsohn), on vacation at Disneyworld with his wife Emily (Elena Schuber), son Elliott (Jack Dalton) and daughter Sarah (Katelynn Rodriguez). Fired from his job the morning of their last day at the resort, Jim bickers with Emily before even leaving the hotel, but the family soldiers on to have a fun time in the Magic Kingdom. But this magic is increasingly dark. Jim hallucinates disturbing images of sinister grinning figures on It’s A Small World (which doesn’t require digital manipulation to be a highly creepy experience, I can assure you), cuts his toe open and bleeds into his sock, hears whispers of a deadly virus spreading through the park, has a confusing sexual encounter with the aforementioned witch-dress-up lady (Alison Lees-Taylor), and is eventually abducted by a German-accented robot in the employ of Siemens who experiments on his mind inside of Epcot’s Spaceship Earth.

Moore utilizes a lot of pretty standard elements to introduce a touch of horror into this realm of pre-packaged fantasy: blood, gore, vomit, nudity, drunkeness, destruction, sci-fi conspiracy, even a hillbilly accent. Additionally, the monochromatic look is part classic indie horror homage and part practical consideration (the production team could not control lighting and had to rely entirely on natural light, so shooting in black and white improved focus and composition), but does grant a defamiliarizing affect to the familiar images of a theme park that millions of people have been to.

But more than anything, Escape from Tomorrow is a rampantly sexually disquieted film, suggesting overwhelming Oedipal psychological issues clearly connected to the movie concept’s genesis in memories connected with Moore’s father. Jim leers at and practically stalks a pair of clearly underaged French girls, learns that the girls who portray Disney princesses for tourists in the park are also hired as high-priced escorts by Asian businessman, has his public displays of affection rebuffed by Emily, and tellingly calls Epcot’s iconic geodesic dome “a giant testicle”. He even escapes his incarceration by Siemens (pun no doubt intended) in Spaceship Earth by squirting whitish liquid out of a tube (cut in droll slow-motion) to short out their machinery and decapitating the German robot.

No gold stars are to be awarded for psychoanalyzing the obvious issues on display, but Moore must be given full marks for airing his emotional laundry so honestly (even if the daddy issues are mediated by blatant symbolism). In a very strange way, Escape from Tomorrow is a painfully personal film even while it trades on a shared mass space of innocence, at least as micromanaged by an enormous multinational corporation for profit. For Randy Moore, the intended positive psychic effects of the Disneyworld space appear to have been subverted, twisted, and shattered by emotional traumas. His film refigures the ultimate utopian space envisioned by Walt Disney (we see his statue at one point, the word “Jesus” skywritten above him suggestively) into a heterotopia, described by Michel Foucault as the sort of location where more complex and even contradictory meanings and interrelations can lurk just beneath the apparently blasé surface. Escape from Tomorrow, for all of its myriad flaws, seeks to transform Disney’s locus of hegemonic happiness into a troubling, nightmarish dystopia of sexually-charged trauma. Even if it does not succeed as it might have in this endeavour, the daring of this construction of meaning might well outstrip the daring of the film’s production itself. For this, Moore and his film deserve qualified praise.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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