Written and Directed by: Randy Moore
Starring: Roy Abramsohn, Elena Schuber, and Katelynn Rodriguez
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Bad things happen everywhere.
Subversion rests at the heart of Escape from Tomorrow, from its surreptitious creation to its trenchant critique of 21st century American life. The story surrounding its guerrilla production marks it as an impossible film, yet its effectiveness dwarfs its monumental existence: it’s one thing to shoot a film on the sly at Disneyworld, but to craft one that somehow becomes more authentic as it spirals into the surreal is incredible. Escape from Tomorrow is perhaps the best kind of satire: horrifying, funny, and completely sly. I actually spent a good chunk of it wondering if I disliked it because it’s so shrewd.
Set on the final day of a family vacation at the famous Florida theme park, the film captures Jim White’s (Roy Abramsohn) existential meltdown. Before his family has rolled out of their beds, his boss informs him that he’s been fired (all while recommending can’t-miss attractions). His reluctance to ruin his family’s vacation outweighs his candor, so he heads off into Walt Disney’s dream factory and only uncovers nightmares: not only is his family—which includes two needy kids and a nagging wife (Elena Schuber)—kind of a nuisance, but the park itself has seemingly warped around him into something insidious. The lone bright spot for him is a pair of disconcertingly young French girls that he becomes obsessed with, so much so that he makes it a point to trail them around the park—much to the curiosity of his young son.
At first, Escape from Tomorrow seems to be a document of an especially unreal midlife crisis: we watch Jim as he strolls to through the park completely disinterested in the proceedings unless he crosses paths with any woman who isn’t his wife. When he isn’t indulging in Lolita fantasies, he’s leering at other women he encounters, like the young nurse who tends to his daughter (who Jim was neglecting, naturally), or a strange siren who lures him to her hotel room so they can fuck (meanwhile, their unattended children mindlessly watch television in the next room). Man-children have dominated the comedy landscape in recent years, and Jim is a horrifyingly realistic take on the theme. Far from funny (or even approaching amusing), he’s a pathetic sad sack chasing teenage girls while ignoring his wife and kids. He whines, makes bad jokes, and generally feels entitled that this vacation is somehow all about him. Jim sucks.
What’s really uncomfortable, though, is how the film skirts around acknowledging that. While the film might not play him for laughs, it seems to emphasize with him: even after his numerous, creepy transgressions, you sense that he is enduring an unjust nightmare at middle age. He might suck, but just look at his life, the film all but screams. Rather than condemn him, the film finds horror in his mundane life and positions him as a champion railing against the tyranny of suburban life. He feels like a Raymond Carver character tilting at banality’s menacing windmills, and it feels unseemly to watch someone of such privilege “suffer” such a decent existence. For much of its early going, Escape from Tomorrow seems like it’s asking you to feel sorry for a middle class white man because his shrew wife has the gall to act appalled when he’s scoping out 15-year-olds at Disney.
It’s repulsive but also deceptive. In keeping with his film’s Lynchian aesthetic—which craftily employs light and shadow to transform Disneyworld into a hellish underworld crawling with ghouls and demons—director Randy Moore subtly weaves his true intentions into Jim’s increasingly terrifying experience. On the surface, Escape from Tomorrow appears to be a eulogy for the weakening privilege of the white American male, now oppressed under the weight of disapproving wives and the crushing responsibility of family life. Eventually, however, Moore digs beneath to uncover and damn the source of this institutionalized sense of entitlement. He finds it buried in a social conditioning lab squirreled away in the bowels of Epcot, an admittedly unsubtle reveal that launches the film into truly hallucinatory territory.
Where he’s initially content to delicately warp funhouse attractions and employ obvious green screen effects to slightly heighten reality, Moore eventually loosens the film from its hinges. Escape from Tomorrow becomes less inspired by Lynch and more guided by Luis Bunuel’s penchant for mixing the absurd and the surreal into starkly photographed snapshots of society in decay. Whether out of necessity or by design, Moore captures this consumerist hellscape in sharp black and white tones, an effect that drains Disneyland of all its color and further escalates a sense of unreality. Escape from Tomorrow is someone’s vacation footage re-imagined as an art house nightmare that savages many of the values that have been sewn into our culture, only to bear rotted fruit.
Shot right in the heart of one of America’s commercial empires, the film obviously exacts a pound of Mickey Mouse’s flesh by indicting Disney’s conspicuous role in shilling unreasonable expectations and codifying gender roles. It’s not that we should feel sorry for Jim: rather, we should be disturbed that society has couched him in such a position where his behavior is somehow acceptable. The film doesn’t judge him because his sort is rarely condemned in reality: instead, what they consume conditions them to assume an entitlement that’s passed down to their own sons. It’s an endless cycle given an insidious face in Escape from Tomorrow, a film that imagines Disney patrolled by its own secret police charged with carrying out dystopic orders. Moore’s imagery might be a touch on-the-nose, but his blunt approach works like a punch in the gut once he reveals his hand.
In this respect, he even accounts for the film’s apparent misogyny by acknowledging how this culture demands women be objects. If Jim’s wife is a shrew, it’s because she’s occupying a role; likewise, when Jim’s siren re-emerges with a tragic backstory about her early days as a park princess, it’s difficult to miss the satire: women are only what men assume or need them to be. Some are gawked at, others groped, and others still are buzz-killing nags. There’s a small but crucial moment buried in the middle of the film where Jim’s wife also begins to notice the park’s underlying ghoulish qualities: suddenly, we realize that this is her nightmare as much as it is her husband’s.
By that token, it is also our nightmare: Escape from Tomorrow peels back Disney’s saccharine layer to reveal its putrid core. Like a snake eating its own tail, it (and its ilk) manufactures symptoms it purports to cure, only it propagates a mad world that refuses to confront sadness and rampant infantilization. We can’t solve our problems when they’re bundled in a shiny vacation package. Escape from Tomorrow feels like dangerous, insurgent filmmaking precisely because it dares to unpack these malcontents right under the nose of a corporate monolith—its existence is already a victory, but its brilliance is truly incendiary.
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