The achievement that filmmaker Randy Moore has made with his unquestionably groundbreaking and legally intriguing Escape from Tomorrow is massive. It breaks open the barriers of what’s capable in terms of filmmaking, and shows once and for all that for creative minds the new digital cinematic revolution can turn the entire world into a virtual playground that can tell any story possible. I deeply appreciate that Moore’s film exist and for the most part that he hasn’t been sued yet over it. But as a narrative, it’s decidedly problematic. Again, that could be a condition of the picture’s filming conditions, but what could have been a sharper satire feels too blunted by a psychosexual undercurrent that feels somewhat half baked.
Filmed entirely at Walt Disney World and its adjoining resorts without any approval from the park’s corporate overlords or any approval of any kind, Escape from Tomorrow was filmed using a camera that could easily blend in with the other park patrons who would never be able to tell a transgressive piece of cinematic history was unfolding right under their noses. It tells the story of Jim (Roy Abramsohn), a married father of two trying to wait out his last beyond miserable day of vacation with his family. It’s also the day he just lost his job. Between his sometimes bratty and sympathetic son (Jack Dalton), his sweetheart daughter (Katelynn Rodriguez), and his sometimes shrill and impatient wife (Elena Schuber), Jim finds himself prone to black outs, hallucinations, and a pervy eye that keeps happening upon a pair of French teenagers that he begins to stalk even when taking his kids on rides. Little by little, however, Jim’s sanity starts to become unravelled and it seems like there’s something a lot more sinister going on at the happiest place on Earth.
There are two things that need to be implicitly understood about Moore’s film outside of the hype created for itself and the ensuing “will Disney sue him or not” dialogue. First, Escape from Tomorrow is a real, legitimate film. It’s not found footage or faux-documentary. This is a movie, and it looks every bit like one. The camerawork is slick, the performances are credible given the circumstances and probably insurmountable amount of pressure required to act under such stressful conditions, and there’s a slickness to everything that most films of the same budget could only dream of being able to come close to.
The second thing, is that there’s no way the film is as crazy or even as boundary pushing on a storytelling level as you might have been led to believe since the film’s earth-shaking debut at Sundance earlier in the year. It’s a pretty straightforward bit of surrealism; a family drama with sexual undertones and a sprinkling of body horror in a couple of places. And within those moments that are supposed to be unnerving is a bit of campiness that kind of harkens back a bit to a bizarro world version of those old Walt Disney Presents shorts or even cautionary filmstrips that Moore’s black and white aesthetic feels a kindred cousin to. It never quite works as well as it should with the suspense and silliness kind of cancelling each other out. In some ways it might be interesting to theorize if the film would have been more successful if Moore took things a bit further, but if he did his flaunting of anti-family values in Disney’s own house would have almost definitely gotten him sued immediately.
It almost runs afoul of the stuff that does work, which is the notion that Disney is the most depressing place on Earth to be if you’re already depressed. In this respect, Moore happens into something Woody Allen always does quite well when dealing with stories about depressed protagonists: he makes the setting a character that’s complacent and uncaring towards the malaise at the heart of the story. When Jim meets and sleeps with a disgraced former Disney princess turned creepy witch while he’s blacked out, there’s a great point to be made about the people who visit the park or work there and how they are forced to buy into a culture where one has to be perfectly happy around the clock. It’s a distinctly corporatized madness that specifically exists only in Disney parks. Nothing in the park looks particularly fun through Moore’s eyes because he’s placing himself firmly in Jim’s shoes. He has no desire to be there anymore and possibly no reason to go on living. Much like the ride he’s forced to go on more than once, his world is getting smaller and smaller and it’s driving him to a breaking point.
Then again, the idea that all of this might be in Jim’s head or the result of a kind of shoehorned into the plot virus that’s making its way around the park gets resolved in a kind of anti-climactic fashion that’s effective, but a bit of a cop out. It’s kind of symbolic of the movie as a whole, but the undisputed truth is that Moore has still done something that’s worth talking about and that raises the bar for future cinema. It proves that genre films can be made anywhere and under any circumstance. Provided that you don’t get caught, of course.