There’s certain things that you’ll only ever get one chance to do. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all, and you only get one chance to see your first sunrise. You only get one chance to sneak up on someone (unless they’re critically careless, of course) and you only have one chance to perform certain orbital procedures, if you’re an astronaut. You only get one shot at a once-in-a-lifetime moment (if there’s truth in advertising) and certain celestial events will only come by once in any given person’s lifetime: be there or be square, as it were. To this list of one-time events, you could certainly add “covertly shoot a subversive sci-fi/surrealist film at Disney World,” since, for all intents and purposes, filmmakers will only ever get one chance at this particular feat. The filmmaker who beat everyone else to the punch? First-time writer-director Randy Moore, whose guerrilla film, Escape From Tomorrow (2013), will probably stand the test of time as the first and last film to be shot in the Magic Kingdom without the express permission of the Disney Corporation. Does Escape From Tomorrow have any real value, aside from the curiosity factor of its genesis, or did Moore’s shot across the bow spoil the party for other, more subversive filmmakers who might want to take a shot at the house that Mouse built? Tack on your wings, grab some fairy dust and let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Jim (Roy Abramsohn) has just taken his family, including wife, Emily (Elena Schuber), daughter, Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) and son, Elliot (Jack Dalton) to Disney World for a much-needed vacation when he gets a call from his work: due to some sort of vague restructuring, Jim has just been laid-off. Fantastic. Rather than spill the beans to his loving family, Jim decides to keep the bad news to himself and give everyone the chance to enjoy one last family vacation before things, presumably, go to complete shit. The problem is that Jim seems to be going a little cuckoo: for one thing, he’s become obsessed with a pair of underage French teens (Danielle Safady and Annet Mahendru) and has taken to stalking them throughout the amusement park, his young son in tow. Jim has also begun to see very strange things, including some clichéd “scary faces” on the It’s a Small World ride and assorted “odd” images elsewhere. Is the stress making Jim crack or is he, somehow, seeing through the smooth, happy, plastic veneer of the “Disney dream” and into the cold, dead eyes that lurk beneath it? Why does he keep running into the same strange people, including an obnoxiously leering man in a motorized scooter (Lee Armstrong) and a strangely beguiling, if rather witch-like woman (Allison Lees-Taylor)? And what, exactly, lies below Spaceship Earth at Epcot Center? Before it’s over, Jim will find himself in a waking nightmare of malevolent fairies, demonic little children, strange scientific procedures, absurd medical maladies and enough surrealism to choke Dali. Welcome to the happiest place on Earth: stay as long as you like, just don’t go poking around in the darkness too much…you might not like what you dredge up.
Right off the bat, let me get the kudos out of the way: against absolutely all odds, Randy Moore was able to covertly shoot a film at one of the most “shenanigan unfriendly” places on Earth, get it edited in secrecy (supposedly in South Korea) and get it released into theaters, all without bringing Disney’s eternally sharp ax down upon his noggin. For these facts alone, I can only say: Bravo to you, good sir, bravo. Escape From Tomorrow is a film that should not exist, by any stretch of the imagination, yet it does: this, in itself, is more accomplishment than many films ever see. Moore and his cast and crew were able to shoot the film on the run (certain shots were planned out months in advance and actors rode the rides over and over in order to perfect the takes) and the finished product doesn’t necessarily feel like an ultra-low digital video feature (not all the time, at least). The black and white cinematography looks quite good, most of the time, and Moore is able to use some surprisingly evocative lighting, which must have been no mean feat under the shooting conditions. This is a film that could easily have ended up looking like someone’s covert concert footage (“Quick, security’s coming: stuff the camera under your coat!”) but it rarely, if ever, does: that’s a pretty big achievement all by itself. If Escape From Tomorrow were a children’s’ book, it might be “The Little Engine That Could.”
On the other hand, despite its back-story, genesis and intent, Escape From Tomorrow just isn’t a particularly good film. Moore had a great idea (shoot a film at Disney World, guerrilla-style, that exposes the seamy underbelly of the American dream) but his execution ends up being muddled, clichéd and, worst of all, decidedly uninteresting. For one thing, the film isn’t nearly as surreal and odd as it thinks it is: much of the “creepy” imagery takes the place of decidedly old-hat things like “scary faces” on animatronic dolls (yawn), suddenly jet-black eyes on people (double-yawn) and surprise “demonic faces,” ala the Paranormal Activity films (again?!). There are a few genuinely surreal moments/images once Jim descends below Epcot Center but these end up being a bit “too little, too late,” by that point. Some of the Disney imagery is used to good, surreal effect (the witch is a nice touch, as are the hazy, druggy scenes that surround her) but a lot of it is pretty trite and wasted: the whole “cat flu” angle is aggressively stupid and seems tacked on, to boot, while the closing fairy image has surprisingly little impact.
By its very definition, Escape From Tomorrow was always going to have some inherent filmmaking issues: if there’s one thing that guerrilla filmmaking doesn’t really lend itself to, it would definitely be polish and fine-tuning. To that end, the acting in the film is pretty awful, across the board, with Jim and his family being some of the worst offenders. Roy Abramsohn is a thoroughly unlikable presence as Jim, which has equal parts to do with his off-putting acting style (“big and dumb” come to mind) and the rather icky character, itself. There’s no point in the film where Jim following the teenage French girls ever comes across as anything more than creepy and pervy: if there was some kind of deeper meaning Moore was going for, it was completely lost on me. For the most part, Jim just seems like a scuzzy jerk and his various fantasies involving the young girls are both pathetic and severely creepy: if I was his wife, my first call would be to the police and my second one would be to a good lawyer. Moral questions aside, however, is the basic notion that Jim is a truly odious character: whiny, self-absorbed, neglectful of his wife and kids, prone to extramarital affairs at the drop of a hat, callous…none of these qualities seem designed to endear him to the audience, which seems to be the point…but to what end? Like everything else in the film, Jim’s constant assholery seems to exist “just because.”
Despite the film’s voluminous shortcomings (it’s basically just a great concept and a few nicely atmospheric shots, the very definition of “style over substance”), there are inklings of the film this could have been. For one thing, nothing at all is made about the inherent link between crushing consumerism and the “Disney dream,” nor is there any insightful commentary regarding the homogenized “Disnified” vision of the world that the amusement park conglomerate foists upon the globe. If Moore avoids any “big” issues, he also manages to completely miss the small ones, as well: there would have been a truly interesting, nightmarish story here if we could only have focused on Jim’s mental breakdown, exploring his fractured psyche as he begins to fall to pieces midst the hustle, bustle and happy families of the Magic Kingdom. There are some genuinely disturbing avenues to explore with Jim and the French teens, as well, but Moore is all too content to just give us some surface ookiness before retreating to the “safer” ground of stereotypical “demonic” activity. The part where Jim and his young son exchange a lascivious leer while ogling the young girls is at least 1000 times more disturbing than the one where the girls get “creepy faces”: any examination of this angle, however, runs the risk of becoming truly subversive and Moore never gets anywhere close to that particular demarcation.
Ultimately, Escape From Tomorrow will stand as a curiosity and missed opportunity, more than anything else. Owing to its truly unique genesis, Moore’s film stood a very good chance of becoming one of those pop culture milestones, like Jodorowky’s Holy Mountain (1973) or Banker’s Toad Road (2012). Instead, the film ended up being fitfully engaging, occasionally interesting and fairly atmospheric, none of which are praise enough to keep it in the cultural zeitgeist for very long. To be honest, I’m not surprised that the Disney corporation chose to respond to Moore’s film by summarily ignoring it, rather than attempting to suppress it through legal avenues. With the proper focus and a truly subversive goal, Moore’s film could have been the kind of thing that would give Disney executives nightmares for a lifetime, let alone the residual effect on a generation of filmmakers raised on the notion that “Walt Disney” is synonymous with “purity.” What Moore actually turned in, however, was a rather tired sci-fi/fantasy that happened to utilize Disney as a location but failed to dig any deeper into the actual mythology.
There’s a truly terrifying, subversive and harrowing film that could have been shot at Disney World, a film that would be impossible to forget or deny, something that would play on the public’s positive association with Disney while reminding them that large corporations tend to grind up humanity for fuel. Escape From Tomorrow isn’t that film, however, which is a pity: thanks to Moore’s film, we’ve probably lost any chance to really peel back the skin and see what makes the mouse tick.