It’s a small world after all. Escape From Tomorrow (2013) is the debut film by writer-director Randy Moore. It is a psychological-horror-sci-fi-thriller centered around Jim and his family, who are on the last day of their holiday at Walt Disney World in Florida. Early in the morning, Jim learns that he has been fired from his job. Later in the day, he begins experiencing demonic hallucinations whilst on a ride at the park. After this, the film spirals out of control like a roller coaster cart gone rogue.
This film is getting a lot of attention because it was filmed ‘guerilla style’ at Walt Disney World, without the permission of Disney. The film was shot with hand-held digital cameras so as not to arouse the attention of employees of the park. To the film’s credit, the visuals are very crisp and clean. This is no Love & Pop (1998), where the hand-held cameras lent a fuzzy, rental VHS quality to the film. The visual quality is quite high, apart from some dodgy-looking green screen sequences that tend to jolt you back into reality. One wonders how they were able to achieve this without getting in trouble. You would really have to rely on the fact that everyone has their camera out at theme parks. Occasionally you can see a cameraman in a glass surface, such as a shop window, but rather than looking amateurish and accidental it lends a further sense of foreboding to the film; as if someone is watching the family.
The whole film is shot in black and white, giving the film an ominous quality throughout its duration. After his wife’s refusal of intimacy at the beginning of the film, the camera’s lingering, shadowy sexual gaze on women makes them look threatening rather than desirable. The black and white sequences of dizzying rides make them look dangerous rather than fun. Shots of kids doing innocent things like skipping and singing songs looks sinister. The rides look especially creepy without any colour. Without the usual bright Disney colour palette, we are given a blank canvas to interpret events; a canvas that becomes increasingly creepy as the film’s events progress. The use of light is also very beautiful, giving the events of the film a noir-esque quality at times.
One strength of the film is its use of music and sound. The music is a mix of classic, Disney-sounding orchestral tunes, and more modern, minimalistic orchestral compositions. At times, the noises of the park build into a cacophony of sound, in alignment with the tension of a scene. Noises of rides, kids crying and screaming, and people talking, became overwhelming during certain scenes. This was a really effective way of handling the tension in the film.
While the adult actors in the film are not that great, the kids quite naturally portray the authentic experience of children at a theme park; getting tired, not wanting to eat lunch, wanting a toy, falling over and scraping a knee. Jim’s wife portrays the frustrated partner at a theme park fairly well, and her annoyance with Jim as his actions become stranger and stranger also seems quite authentic. Jim’s actor, however, seems to be more of a ‘goofball dad’ type actor rather than the ‘psychological thriller dad’. Some of his actions are intentionally quite funny, but some are unconvincing. This is a shame since he is the lead in the film. His moments of leering sexuality are portrayed well. But when it comes to the psychological terror of his hallucinations, his acting is ineffectual.
It’s also a big shame that this film is trying to be a million things at once. At the beginning, it is a convincing psychological thriller. Jim’s hallucinations are genuinely creepy and I was really interested to see a) why they were happening, and b) what they meant for the rest of the story. If I knew that the film would devolve into an unconvincing and lazy attempt at a pseudo-sci-fi story, I probably would have been better prepared for my inevitable disappointment.
Spoiler alert! Huge spoilers in here, don’t read them.
After losing his daughter at the park, Jim is approached by two park employees. He is tasered and – surprise! – there is an ‘INTERMISSION’ title card. For a film spanning roughly 100 minutes, there was no need for this. It snapped me back into reality more than the bad green screen did, and took away any tension or care for the character that had been established. Then, Jim wakes up in a stark white sci-fi chamber where his memories are scanned through an Epcot Centre shaped helmet. There is talk of imagination and its connection with the park, a Siemens-branded robot is beheaded, antiseptic cream is spurted everywhere – seriously, what? The film started off so well!
What were they trying to do? The film ends with an attempt at Cronenberg-esque body horror as Jim experiences violent diarrhoea, coughs up hairballs, he turns into a cat (kind of, maybe), and then a Jim doppelganger arrives at the park as the real Jim’s dead body is rolled away in a bodybag. I don’t think I missed something important that would make doppelgangers a relevant twist. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. The introduction of a doppelganger at last minute felt like an artificial attempt at a “Gotcha, aren’t I smart!” moment, a la Nolan’s Inception (2010). The cat part, I can understand, as the threat of ‘cat flu’ was reinforced throughout the film. If Jim had turned into the Cheshire Cat from Alice In Wonderland and been installed permanently into one of the rides at the park… even that would have been a satisfying ending for me.
What were they trying to say with the doppelganger? There was talk of all of Jim’s actions at the park being pre-ordained, and having to follow them for threat of death. But things just didn’t connect for me.
There is also mention of a prostitution conspiracy with the costumed Disney princesses – this would have been amazing if explored properly. As it is, this information was given to us, and nothing was done with it. This frustrates me a lot, because if you’re not going to do anything with this information, and if it has no real impact on the story overall, why present it as so significant?
Also, there were genuinely scary moments in the beginning of the film were Jim feared that his son or daughter had been abducted at the park. I’m unaware of the statistics regarding how many children are taken or molested at Walt Disney World, but this would have been a really interesting examination of the psychological effects of such an event. What we have instead is a film that is attempting to be at least three different things, and doesn’t do a satisfying job at any of them.
I had no idea what Escape From Tomorrow was about when I decided to watch it. I was impressed by the poster design, and I had just read about the controversial issues with filming at Walt Disney World. Apart from that, I had no pre-existing expectations about what the film was supposed to be like. It is important to note that even though I had no high expectations by any means, I was disappointed by this film. It was trying to be too many things at once, and it stretched itself too thin. Still, the first half of the film was quite good, and there are definitely qualities of this film that are impressive. They just don’t outweigh the disappointment that is the storytelling and plotting, and the ultimate letdown of the ending. It’s worth a watch for its quirk factor, but don’t expect anything mindblowing.
Watch the trailer here.