Some architects suggest that the shape of a place can determine what happens inside. Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow was shot almost entirely within the confines of Disneyland and Walt Disney World, with the cast and crew collecting footage surreptitiously over the course of several months while pretending to be camera-wielding tourists. The story of how Escape From Tomorrow came to be is as fascinating as the movie itself, but Moore’s method isn’t a publicity stunt. The location dictated the way Moore and his company worked, which in turn influenced what this movie became. This isn’t some generic middle-class nightmare. It’s disturbingly specific.
Roy Abramsohn stars as Jim White, a doughy, dorky husband and father who learns that he’s been fired on the morning of his last day of a Disney vacation. Jim tries to shake off his funk by going to the park with his wife and kids, but his day slowly begins to unravel. His family can’t agree on anything, he keeps suffering mishaps and hallucinations, and he’s struck with a general queasiness caused by a combination of motion sickness, intoxication, paranoia, depression, and possibly a touch of the “cat flu” that’s been going around. As the day grinds on, Jim gets seduced by a mysterious woman who reveals to him that all the park’s “princesses” are actually high-priced prostitutes, and he gets taken into a secret lab inside the Epcot dome. Some of what he sees and hears may just be bubbling up from his fevered imagination—or perhaps he’s having a rare moment of clarity, allowing him to see the truth beneath Disney’s relentless corporate-enforced cheeriness.
Escape From Tomorrow doesn’t vary much from start to finish, beyond getting darker and stranger as it goes. It’s mostly a collection of surreal moments, headed nowhere in particular. But Moore milks a lot of the ironic potential out of his milieu. Abel Korzeniowski’s dreamy orchestral score and Lucas Lee Graham’s sharp black-and-white cinematography create a sense of wonder that Moore then undercuts by using computer effects to distort the faces on Disney’s animatronic rides (not that it takes much to make them look grotesque), and by emphasizing the seminal spurt of amusement-park fountains and sunscreen tubes. The Disney parks have long been the source of urban legends—that the turkey legs are really made of emu, that a man was once decapitated on a roller-coaster, that a secret staff of “fixers” quietly clean up any problems—and Escape From Tomorrow nods to those rumors, while using a lot of limited-perspective shots to show how just the slightest tweak can make The Happiest Place On Earth seem like one man’s personal hell.
Moore may rely on so many tight shots to limit his legal exposure by keeping other Disney patrons out of the frame. If so, this is one of those cases where the shoot’s limitations make for a better film. Here’s another: Moore uses a studio and the computer-age equivalent of rear-projection to stage some of the wilder scenes in Escape From Tomorrow, but the rest of the action was shot in and around the park, which means a good portion of Jim’s meltdown stems from run-of-the-mill, non-attention-getting drama, such as kids who either scamper out of sight or demand to stand in a two-hour line for a ride that unexpectedly closes. The necessary ordinariness of about 50 percent of Escape From Tomorrow grounds the rest.
And though Moore can’t figure out what to do with all of this beyond scattered piss-takes on Disney and garbled howls of male angst, he does both of those very well—especially the latter. Even more than the mutating robots and mysterious coughing tourists, the tension in Escape From Tomorrow derives from Jim’s fascination with the two sexy French teenagers he follows from ride to ride, and the way his wife resists his attempts to show her some affection. Even if this were just a movie about a newly unemployed schmoe with whiny kids and a loveless marriage, it’d still be horrifying.