“Imaginate, what we can do, when Tomorrow there’s another YOU?
On the other side, we will realize
Wishes really do come, come true.
Imaginate, imaginate, imaginate, imaginate, imaginate,
like we can do, wishes really do come true…”
“Imaginate” (from the Escape from Tomorrow soundtrack)
DIRECTED BY: Randy Moore
FEATURING: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, Katelynn Rodriguez, Jack Dalton, Danielle Safady, Ahnnet Mahendru, Alison Lees-Taylor, Stass Klassen
PLOT: A day in the life of an American family vacationing at Disneyland… or Walt Disney World… or at least some Disney related theme park. Only this day starts out with Jim (Roy Abramsohn) getting a call from his boss, who tells him that there’s no job for him to return to. Things can only go downhill from there, but everything is filtered through a cheerful veneer. From a spreading cat-flu epidemic, to stalking teen-age girls, brainwashing by Park cyborgs, it just goes to show that “bad things happen everywhere”… even in the Happiest Place On Earth.
- Escape from Tomorrow was the “buzz” picture at the 2013 Sundance film festival, with most of the talk centering around the fact that much of the movie was shot surreptitiously at Disney World by the crew while posing as ordinary tourists.
- The release of Canon’s 5D Mark II Digital SLR camera was the spur to get the movie made; the image quality was cinematic and the cameras small enough to allow a crew to shoot surreptitiously.
- Pre-production was meticulous, every shot planned and blocked out weeks ahead of time, due to the limited window of opportunity, even to the point of charting out the position of the sun.
- Post-production was done in South Korea, mainly due to the editor and producer’s contacts, but also to not allow word of the project to get near Disney.
- Although it was widely assumed that Disney’s notoriously litigious legal department would act swiftly to stop distribution of Escape from Tomorrow, the corporation decided the wiser strategy to protect their brand was to ignore this small independent film rather than bringing additional attention to it.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: An immobile Jim, head replaced by a mini-Epcot dome, uniquely captures the tone and intent of the film.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:The film’s subversive commentary on Disney’s hold on the collective imagination has a solid bite that has not been previously approached as directly as it is here, by actually shooting on Disney property completely in plain sight – in the belly of the Beast, so to speak. The black and white photography also helps in making that familiar world appear alien. Plus, a mad scientist turns a guy’s head into the Epcot center.
Escape from Tomorrow original trailer
COMMENTS: “Jim, listen to me. Don’t let your imagination run wild. It’s a transitional period.”
This is the first full sentence of Escape from Tomorrow, and it’s a key—if not the key—to understanding exactly what writer/director Randy Moore is up to in this groundbreaking film. Thanks to its impressive and unique origins, Escape from Tomorrow now occupies a spot analogous to that The Blair Witch Project held over a decade ago (leaving aside the latter film’s massive box office) in independent film. And, like Blair Witch, Escape is starting to encounter backlash in reaction to the hype that accompanied its debut at Sundance as “the best film that you may never get a chance to see.” Most of that backlash centers around a perceived lack of bite in the satire, and to criticism of the acting and filmmaking as “amateurish” and “just plain awful.” To each his own, but since most of the initial discussion centered around the film as a cause célèbre when it appeared to be waiting to be crushed by Disney’s corporate paw, now that it has been released with very little reaction from The Mouse House, some are feeling cheated that perhaps the film didn’t go as far as it could taking on Disney… that it’s a missed opportunity.
Anyone who hoped for a harsh slash and burn attack on Disney and its park practices will need to seek satisfaction elsewhere, but those who feel that the satire is too soft and too on the surface are missing the point entirely. Escape from Tomorrow is a comic nightmare of the subconscious: “Lynchian” has been used many times in descriptions of the film. But Moore isn’t a David Lynch-style surrealist; his take in presenting the paranoia and sexual tension that lurks in the corners of The Happiest Place On Earth is closer to the work of Luis Buñuel. (Although Lynch works in the areas of the unconscious/subconscious, when any discussion of Surrealism in film comes up nowadays, Lynch is director that everyone whips out at first mention. Not to say that he isn’t an influence on Moore’s film, but I do not think the film is “Lynchian.” In my opinion the approach taken in films such as The Exterminating Angel and The Phantom of Liberty are a closer touchstone for what Moore is attempting to accomplish).
“Imagination” is a word that is repeated throughout Escape from Tomorrow, and it is the coin of this realm. After all, the whole function of amusement parks such as Disney World is to provide a playland. What could be better than having your playland already thought out for you—characters, scenarios, every little thing? Disney may not have been at it the longest, but they have certainly been very thorough in “imagineering” characters and places that have taken up substantial residence in the imagination of most kids and adults who’ve grown up under Disney’s dominance. Which is why having this movie shot on the actual park grounds—no cheap knock-off as a stand-in, no name change, no way to hide—gives the film so much of its power.
So Escape is a comic nightmare––is it Jim’s nightmare? It would appear so. The quintessential American dad of the all-American family has plenty to stress out about. He’s been fired from his job and he’s out on a vacation the family can probably no longer afford. His young son has some issues with him, and his wife no longer sees him as a companion and lover to happily spend the days with, but more like a large child who has to be constantly criticized and herded. So with all of that hanging over his head, why wouldn’t he start seeing Disney’s happy cheering figures as leering devil harpies dedicated to tormenting those who have a moment of insight? And who wouldn’t also focus on a couple of young nubile French girls full of life and potential? Everything that we see in the film is from Jim’s point of view, excepting one scene where wife Emily (Elena Schuber) hallucinates the Parisian girls as demons, which may express her fears and paranoia about Jim’s feelings for her (unfortunately, this is the only time we’re allowed any insights on her character). The happenings are all tied into adult desires and concerns—sexuality, disease, growing older—it’s one big smorgasbord of sex and death intertwined. In crafting this nightmare, the filmmakers also cite quite a bit of counter-Disney lore/urban myth (the decapitation on the roller coaster glimpsed before the credits, the turkey/emu drumsticks, employees as prostitutes for rich foreigners, secret rooms underneath the park, robots) and also draws on the real annoyances of attending these parks (the lines, vomiting, misplaced children).
Escape from Tomorrow shares DNA with at least a couple of other film nightmares—Seconds and Carnival of Souls— which are also (spoiler warning) journeys by the main character into death/rebirth. When Jim is in the Siemens lair, he’s shown entering the hotel with a young hot wife and daughter (as the Scientist tells him, “that’s the real you in a part of your imagination that you never thought to use”), whom we also see at the end of the film entering the hotel as Jim’s corpse is unceremoniously loaded into a van and carted off. Could this be just more of the nightmare/dream, now turning benign; or could it be Jim taking control of his imagination? Or could it just be that there is always a happy ending in The Happiest Place On Earth?
No set answers are provided… maybe if there are answers to be found, they’re obliquely hinted at in the park theme song, “Imaginate,” that recurs throughout the movie and plays over the end credits. The complete version can be heard on the soundtrack album:
If you look, the whole world’s happy,
Feel the beat, it’s us inside of you,
Through your body, now your ear is clear
Have you found the hidden clue?
(lyrics by Randy Moore)
There’s quite a bit to chew on in Escape from Tomorrow beyond just the Disney satire, and hopefully its influence will be seen in the works of future filmmakers, who might also find clever ways of tackling ‘unfilmable’ subjects and locations.
Ben Sunde adds:
While Escape from Tomorrow is a memorable experience full of surreal and nightmarish imagery, the credit is mostly owed to the strength and prevalence of Disney’s creations rather than Moore’s unique takes on them. It doesn’t require much effort to show there may be something untoward about a major corporation, or that there may be something otherworldly about a place that transparently trades on magic. For the most part, Moore succeeds only in making explicit what everyone already knew.
Escape from Tomorrow opens with protagonist Jim White learning he has been fired from his job, then joining his family on the last day of their Disney World vacation. White conceals the news from his wife and children to avoid spoiling the trip, but the humiliation still weighs upon him as the family enters Walt Disney’s land of fiercely maintained cheer. On the “It’s a Small World” attraction, White imagines his son’s eyes turning black and his wife laughing as she tells him that he is not the boy’s real father. Meanwhile, the ride’s childlike dolls grow monstrous faces and their saccharine song becomes an ominous chant. Disney World, which embodies the dreams of children, has been tainted by mature anxieties, and so the park has brought to life the nightmares of an emasculated man.
Reports of Escape from Tomorrow’s production echo that sense of an adult corrupting a wonderland; director Randy Moore made Disney theme parks into sets for his film without the knowledge of The Walt Disney Company, using their youthful playground to tell a story of middle-aged angst. Moore’s skillfully obtained but unimpressively manipulated footage imposes grim meanings upon Disney’s familiar iconography, turning rides into the sites of beheadings, transforming the Disney Princesses into prostitutes for Japanese businessmen, and all the while suggesting a larger conspiracy behind the Disney brand. Those various elements never cohere, though, instead seeming like separate entries in a paranoid book of Disney urban legends that was inexplicably made into a film. Moore demonstrates ingenuity by reorganizing stolen fragments of the Disney’s legacy into something new, but the world created from those pieces is less compelling than the method of its creation.
Moore’s portrayal of Disney becomes more meaningful, however, as his focus shifts from the park’s mysteries to White’s alienation from his family. Actor Roy Abramsohn plays his character like an overgrown child, desperate for the full attention of others but always dividing himself between the real world and that of his imagination. He attempts to flirt with his wife and bond with his son, but they each reciprocate with a tired resentment that he can neither understand nor soothe. White instead responds by dreaming of seductive French tourists and a park staff that is hunting him down, preferring those fantasies of being desperately wanted to the truth of a family that cannot bear him at all. Disney World’s veneer of magic supports those dreams, making them seem almost real, and so the park becomes the wounded patriarch’s childish refuge from adulthood.
Escape from Tomorrow thereby indulges the desire for childhood to last forever, and for a man to not have to settle for the life he has created for himself. White’s responsibilities await him tomorrow, when his vacation ends and he must deal with the reality of unemployment, and yet Disney offers him the hope of avoiding that inevitability. Under Moore’s direction, Disney World becomes a place where anything is possible, even things that shouldn’t necessarily be allowed. It becomes a sanctuary for children and man-children alike, a way to escape the future where boys become men and must face the consequences of their own actions. It becomes a way to escape tomorrow, and to live forever in a moment of selfishness.
Ryan Aarset adds:
One of my most cherished memories of Disneyland has to be when I dropped acid there with my ex-girlfriend a few years ago. Most mesmerizing of all the attractions we attended that day was “Pirates of the Caribbean,” where I gleefully feared for my life amidst an illusory pirate ship battle. Later, making out in the never-ending line of Splash Mountain, fondling my girlfriend a bit too provocatively next to families on holiday, I created an oddly inappropriate sexual scene that the atmosphere of this illusive place is renowned for evading. I have grown up in a landscape of false backdrops, illusions and dreams for my whole 25 years of life in Los Angeles, and of course have learned to accept the mystical auras surrounding this surrealistically exciting place where human consciousness can be swept away from the horrors of modernity with tremendous ease.
Examining the parallel natures of horror and fantasy, Sigmund Freud and David Lynch, pioneers of the more uncanny presumptions of human consciousness, have each had their influential concepts of the terrifyingly banal stretched so far across the polar ends of the 20th century that it’s cliché to even mention them as anything other than broad archetypal center points from which myriad psychological and aesthetic concepts can be derived. In Randy Moore’s excitingly audacious guerrilla film Escape from Tomorrow, the influence of these two dominating figureheads of modern mysticism are not just utilized for the purpose of artistic solidarity, but also for precise referencing of subtle and simplistic presumptions of human consciousness and the resulting emotional impact on the ideal self. These ideas are discordantly messed with in the film via the strange journey by a perfectly happy family through the most famous and beloved theme park in the world, one conceptualized by Walt Disney, a man whose imaginatively surreal and whimsical escapist fantasies share much in common with Freud and Lynch. Freud’s classic psychosexual concepts of the id and Oedipal complex are spackled throughout this film in tightly controlled bursts of sexual imagery, with the orgasm being the most prevalent. Orgasm is seen in obvious yet elegant gestures ranging from the upward thrust of a large spouting park fountain to a cathartic series of shots depicting authentic Disney aerial fireworks, all set to a hopeful yet innocent park-music score that juxtaposes with the adult themes being handled. Shot in black and white, probably to subdue the friendlier effects that the lush colors of old W’s world-class theme park has on the imagination, Moore walks (and runs) us through the forbidden realms of escapist sexuality in the lustful pursuit of the lead character Jim for a pair of teenage girls, and also with some minimally powerful but dark suggestions of children (played wonderfully by Katelynn Rodriguez and Jack Dalton) lusting for their parents and other potential mates. We see Elliot, played by Dalton, shyly fondle and hide behind his mother’s arm while some tight-bodied French girls dance and sing around a pole on the Monorail. Later the kids swap parents, with Jim taking his daughter Sara under his wing and ultimately resurrecting her from a deep slumber on a bed of roses with a loving kiss, referencing both the Electra Complex and Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
At the start of the film we are introduced to Jim, a perfectly mild-mannered father who happens to lose his job at a moment’s notice without explanation. Almost immediately we are given a progressively beautiful analysis of the emotional consequences of his feelings of inadequacy by way of the pursuit of fantasy as atonement for personal insecurity. Moore accomplishes this by successfully orchestrating gorgeous moving shots of the family experiencing the park’s attractions up close, and then counters it by splicing in snippets of fantasy-horror, beginning with the infamously scary witch on the Snow White attraction and ending with hallucinatory sequences involving strange sub-plots of adult-related threats, such as disease (the cat flu), suicidal ideation (Abrahmson has more than one scene in which he pretends to commit suicide), and one disturbingly creepy obese man in a power-chair.
Returning to Lynch, the messiah of the grotesque, Moore pays homage by handling the bizarre nature of these false realities created by Disney in competent, but not entirely bold, sequences, including fast cuts of eerie animatronics set among flickering lights and a few strange allusions to classic Disney fairy tales that deftly give the viewer a sour aftertaste (particular credit to Alison Lees-Taylor’s flirtatiously ominous performance as a princess-turned-witch). The character of Emily, played by Elena Schuber, should also be given credit for her role as the nagging and eventually raging and jealous wife, who is given ample character development throughout the loose narrative but remains the (mostly) diligent wife opposite the drunk and philandering husband. By the end of the film, Jim’s family has gradually disintegrated into a sort of bitter-sweet chaos, of which the apotheosis is an entirely original and darkly humorous death that is both revoltingly violent and playfully hilarious. Escape From Tomorrow is a solid surrealist fantasy that isn’t overly boastful about its seemingly worn-out concept of the perils of dreaming. It was also shot on-the-fly and under-the-radar, making it rebellious, important, and essential viewing for anyone interested in the beautiful but terrible longing for some kind of escape. Old “W” himself would be damn proud of this one.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A one-of-a-kind piece of subversive surrealism. It’s safe to say that anyone who sees ‘Escape From Tomorrow’ will never again perceive a family-friendly amusement park in quite the same way.” – Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
“A subversively satirical attack on the totalitarian nature of mass entertainment. Randy Moore’s film does deliver something new, being a bravura leap into the unknown and a testing piece of surrealism in its own right.”– Damon Wise, The Guardian
OFFICIAL SITE: Escape From Tomorrow (official site) – animated gifs, and a countdown of the number of hours since the film’s release that they haven’t been sued…
Official Facebook Page – for breaking news and interactivity
IMDB LINK: Escape From Tomorrow (2013)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Pressbook – the movie’s official pressbook (in .pdf format)
‘Escape from Tomorrow’ – Behind the Scenes – video interviews with director Moore, star Abramsohn, and artist fans of the film, compiled by Vice Magazine
Hidden Mickeys: Why We Look for Disney’s Dark Side – An article by Matt Singer of The Dissolve
Randy Moore’s “Escape From Tomorrow” is a living example of tech-aided cinema – interview w/Randy Moore about how current film technology allowed the film to be made
Three Takes on Escape from Tomorrow – The original three part review of Escape from Tomorrow for this site
DVD INFO: Those who missed Escape from Tomorrow in theaters (or via still-available video-on-demand) will now have their chance with the DVD (buy) or Blu-ray (buy) release. If you were hoping for some revelatory answers to the movie’s riddles in the extras, you’ll be disappointed. There is a good featurette about the making of the film, along with a short gallery of some of the other poster artwork considered for the theatrical release, but the commentaries—there are two—are a good example of wasted opportunities.
The first commentary is with director Randy Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham, but it’s very loose, and not much useful information is imparted. I’m not sure if there may be legal reasons behind it, but aside from a couple of interesting facts that ultimately go nowhere, the conversation is pretty useless. The second commentary is with actors Roy Abramsohn and Elena Schuber in character (Jim and Emily) watching and commenting on the film, which isn’t an amusing idea at all.
If you liked the film, the disc is worth purchasing for the movie alone. If you’re the type of cineaste who lives for extras, you may have to wait a few years until all can be told and purchase that edition, in whatever format has evolved by then.