Escape From Tomorrow (2013)

Of course, if you are a hungry, young indy director who doesn’t get assimilated by the Big Four Studios, the alternative is fading away completely. This is a fate worse than death for most of my fame-obsessed Fellow Americans, and it’s a fate that can quite easily equal death in our bloodthirsty country, whose overriding ethos of, “I’ve got mine! Fuck you!” only becomes clearer with each natural disaster. So I’d like to give some props to 2013’s entirely-forgotten Escape from Tomorrow, because it’s either that, or back to camping my local stores for their next shipment of toilet paper.

Writer/director Randy Moore made a pretty nice-sized splash when this picture premiered, and his subsequent disappearance from the movie world just goes to show that, sometimes, even when you win the lottery, you can still lose. If we’re being quite honest, this movie is too surreal for most American critics. We only have room in their hearts for one David Lynch and will compare everyone else too him negatively (whether they deserve it or not). Simultaneously, and paradoxically, Escape from Tomorrow is too normal for the surrealists, who have their own, storied film traditions. This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, either. Luis Brunel and Salvator Dali hoped their 1929 film, Un Chien Andalou, would be so hardcore it would cause riots in the streets of Paris. And they were apparently quite disappointed when everyone at that premiere nodded politely and said something like, “Yep – that’s a Brunel/Dali collab alright. 4 out of 5. Needs more dream logic.”

There’s only one scene here that’s anywhere near as hardcore as anything Dali and Brunel came up with. Besides, true surrealist pieces are living dreams, while Escape from Tomorrow is very much a story. And it’s the story of how one family’s last day at Disney World turns into a waking nightmare after patriarch Jim gets a call from his boss first thing in the morning, telling him he’s lost his job. Filmed on location at Disney World. And Disneyland. That’s part of the surreality: the park is too big to be just one park. There are too many attractions, and the family packs way more activities than should be humanly possible into a day that seems to stretch on forever. All shot in an austere black and white that flattens and distorts space with few-to-no special effects required.

So why isn’t this movie more well-known? Well, for one thing, it’s widely mislabeled as a “dark comedy,” whatever that means. And by “widely” I mean “that’s what the Storyline section of it’s IMDb page says.” But let’s be honest – where are most people going to check first? Genres are socially constructed bullshit anyway…but they’re widely accepted, socially constructed bullshit. So if I have to argue in those terms, I’d argue Wikipedia is more accurate, calling Escape from Tomorrow a “psychological dark horror fantasy.” Not just because the film’s packed with creepy imagery that may or not be the product of its protagonist’s deluded mind, but also because of the shot composition. When scenes are set inside, where the filmmakers have more control, the damn thing’s even lit in that classic, Universal horror style that makes everyone look a little more sinister…But, as a horror movie, there’s one death at the beginning, one at the end, and a whole lot of jump scares in between: the exact opposite of what floats the metric-driven, solipsistic American horror movie critic’s boat. The death itself isn’t even a “creative” kill, by the stunted rubric of our stupid times – it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of someone getting their head chopped off on Thunder Mountain, as quick as the ride itself.

It should go without saying this movie was made without the cooperation of the Disney corporation. Cast and crew all bought season passes and kept their scripts on their phones. They blocked everything out in hotel rooms beforehand and used equipment indistinguishable from normal tourist cameras to all but the most dedicated lens-head. There was some concern about the actors showing up in the same outfits and riding the same rides every day. But apparently park security only bugged them once, when they though the crew were paparazzo, annoying a family of famous tourists.

It is a rare and remarkable thing to see a film open with a “this is a work of fiction” disclaimer. Usually those go at the end, under the logos of the camera companies, where only Marvel fans looking to get hyped for the next movie dare to tread. But too much of the discourse about this film got bogged down in the legality of it even existing. Examinations of its actual-or-potential meanings are thinner on the ground than topsoil during a Dust Bowl. Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School got a whole New Yorker magazine piece out of this film’s legality. But in the midst of wondering what Disney might do to Randy Moore with its bottomless pockets and famously vicious lawyers, Professor Wu did offer this one bit of actual critique: “The film isn’t so much a criticism of Disney World itself but of the unattainable family perfection promised by a day spent at the park.”

All due respect, Professor, but I gotta say: strong disagree. That “unattainable family perfection” is itself a product, packaged and sold to us by the Disney corporation, as Uncle Walt explicitly intended. The Mouse House got its litigious reputation thanks to a long history of going after people who dared to look askance at that product, or the company’s packaging of it. And this film includes plenty of that, even before things get explicitly Weird. Wife Emily and daughter Sarah manage to fit three rides into the time it takes Jim and his son Elliot to get to the front of the line for Buzz Lightyear. And it’s a screaming baby line, of course. Like a screaming baby airplane flight, except worse, because at least in the air you have no delusions about your ability to leave the screaming baby behind. And, as soon as they make it all the way up, the ride’s immediately declared “not in service.”

Our writer/director claims he got inspired to make all this by the experience of going to Disney World as a kid and then coming back with his own kids. The pure surreality of all the magic and hope and wonder of a totally commodified childhood, juxtaposed with the tedious, annoying, degrading reality of life under late capitalism…including the knowledge of your own childhood’s commodification. Hurry up and wait, like we’re all in some man’s army, except without the free health care. Especially if we lose our jobs first thing in the morning. It’s enough to drive anyone into a paranoid fantasyland that’s half R-rated, modern day, live-action remake of Snow White and half Philip K. Dick novel…though he would’ve probably set all of this on Mars…or in a post-apocalyptic future that tries to paper over its hideous reality with shinny, happy advertisements and the sheltering arms of massive, paternalistic corporations…oh, wait…

Spoiler alert for a film I do actually want you to go out and see. You might want to watch it before we go on – all that I’m about to say will probably make a lot more sense. The first draft of this review was basically a point-by-point plot breakdown, with my usual rambling tangents sprinkled throughout. But I don’t have a British accent, so I can’t fool people into thinking I’m smart just by talking a movie at you and making the occasional, exasperated sigh. Besides, that’s some 2013 internet reviewer shit, and the world has moved on. We have to go deeper, so last chance. I’ll pause while you hunt yourself up a copy of this sucker.

Ready? Okay. I mentioned Dick earlier, and not just because it’s eventually revealed that the German-accented scientist who lives under Epcot Center and kidnaps Jim about two-thirds of the way through is actually a robot in disguise. I mentioned Dick also because Escape from Tomorrow is a better Philip K. Dick movie than all the movies based on his books. Even the best of ’em rarely have the courage to pull the kind of move he’d throw into Chapter One, just for flavor. There’s a moment where Epcot snaps its moorings and explodes as people watching from minimum safe distance (and behind the camera) laugh…Except, no. That was just Jim’s hallucination…or was it? Maybe he’s already dead and the rest of this is the hallucination. Given how precarious even traditionally comfortable middle-class jobs were getting, even back in 2013, losing your job is basically a death sentence.

These are the nightmares of the middle-class, bourgeoisie, dude striver, juxtaposed with (where else?) the Happiest Place on Earth (registered trademark). The middle-class striver is usually suspicious of happiness because they cannot imagine it for themselves. They have lost that power…or given it up to any number of corporations, willingly, for $9.99 a month, or…$1,300 a year? Sweet Kansan Jesus.

Sorry. Sticker shock. Where was I? Ah, yes – the neurotic fears of the painfully-average, bad and bougie, cis-het-white American dude in the first year of Obama’s second term. The fear that you are infinitely replaceable at the job that is supposed to define your identity. The fear that you’ll ruin your family’s last vacation day by telling them about it. That you’ll end up ruining it anyway, because you didn’t pay attention when your English teacher tried to teach you what “hubris” means. The fear that your family secretly hates you – that your wife will turn to you one day and say your kids aren’t actually your kids. The fear that your wife won’t be able to handle the bad news of your lost job, even though she can probably see through you so easily you might as well be made of glass. The fear that you are made of glass – or that your sanity is, at any rate. And that, once shattered, it can never be pieced back together. By whom? With what resources? Especially when your supposedly nearest and dearest actually hate you? The fear that you’ll die in a hotel bathroom, next to the toilet you’ve just wrecked, and that your so-called loved ones will close the door on you rather than help, out of petty revenge for you ruining their last day at Disney World. “And Ham, father of Caanan, saw the nakedness of his father and went outside to tell his brethren.” Or something. To those cursed with the Protestant Work Ethic (cursed to be the lowest of slaves, one might say) that’s more embarrassing than a house full of condiments with no food.

“I wanna have one final, decent last day here,” Jim says to Emily early on. “That’s all I ask.” Except that’s not all he’s asking and we know it right off. Because the first thing Jim does, as soon as they board the train into the park, is start perving on a couple of teenage French girls. From this moment on, they become his Objects of Desire, not at all Obscure because he’ll follow them for the rest of the film – and drag his son along with him, all the way up Space Mountain. There is a moment where dad and son seem to decide to perv on les Jailbait together…but we’re in Jim’s perspective, aren’t we? And he’s about as far from a reliable POV character as you can get without being Patrick Bateman. Later his son will ask,“Dad? Why are we following those girls?” and dad will have no answer. The ghost of Sigmund Freud is watching him and judging him and he knows it, just like his wife knows what he was looking at back on the train (though she chooses to say nothing until later).

The Freudian way of looking at all this says les Jailbait represent both the obvious forbidden libidinal stuff, but also a lost innocence that can never be reclaimed by an adult. Thus Jim chases after it, seeking to possess it, destroy it, or both. The apparent-innocence of youth reminds Jim of all the many, various things he can no longer have. Daughter Sarah represents the childhood innocence that Jim’s actually in charge of protecting…something he will fail at, miserably, over the course of this adventure. That’s why Sarah winds up kidnapped by a wicked witch at the end. Before that, though, after following the French girls around with his son, Jim trades kids with his wife, and then loses their daughter in Jungle Adventure. It’s just for a moment, because it’s a moment of foreshadowing, but it’s enough to stress-test the walls of Jim’s reality, and they utterly fail. Here the film makes manifest every parent’s fear, regardless of where you are in the social cast system: that they are not, in any way shape or form, up to the task. That a stray object of desire will make them look the wrong way at the wrong time and lose the thing they should value above all else.

At least, in theory. In practice, Jim uses a trip to the park nurse for some bactean and a band-aid as an excuse to peek at the park nurse’s tits. The nurse warns him about a “cat flu” apparently making the rounds, which is weird because “cat flu” is actually a thing…but it’s more a placeholder term, used until the vet can run tests and figure out which of at least four diseases your cat actually has. Regardless, the “cat flu” in this film does come up again, with some implication that it may be responsible for the weird shit Jim’s experiencing. Except there’s only one constant in all this madness, and that’s Disney World itself.

Which brings us back to Snow White. As the first Disney film – the one that started all this – Snow White haunts Jim’s journey to the center of the mind right from the start. “I don’t like the witch,” his daughter says as they enter the park. “No one does,” he responds…and I originally wrote, “speak for yourself, there, Jimbo,” but he contradicts himself as soon as another little boy’s mom starts flirting with him on a bench, as her son and his daughter play in front of them. A very romantic track creeps into the soundscape and the camera that is Jim’s eye zooms in on her giant…jeweled necklace. Yes. Then Jim blacks out again and wakes up, mid coitus, tied to the lady’s bed. Or maybe he gets hypnotized by her…magic jewel. This is the middle-class dude horror of cheating. “It wasn’t my fault, honey – she hypnotized me with her tits.” Even the Avatar of Boomer Dudes himself, William Jefferson Clinton, still uses that lame-ass excuse to this very day (just replace “tits” with “thong”).

So the Other Woman with the magic necklace tells Jim that Disney Princesses are all, in fact and on the regular, pimped out to “rich, Asian businessmen” who’ll “pay thousands for one in costume…They’re all high-priced courtesans.” This she knows from personal experience, having been a costumed princess back in the day before…something bad happened. “Bad things happen everywhere,” she says. “Especially here.” She alone references the guy who got his head chopped off on Thunder Mountain. But she also says she’s “joking.” And of course she’s joking. Thanks to Jeffery Epstein, we now know that real life rich perverts (and not just from Asian, but right here in the bad ol’ U.S. of A.) have no need to go to Disney World or -land. They can get their Princesses straight from the modeling industry, with help from the guy who owned Victoria’s Secret until a hedge fund (probably owned by other rich pervs) bought him out. But isn’t it funny how what was probably conceived as a transgressive, boundary-pushing idea in 2013 makes me go, “Yeah, sure, why not?” in 2020. No, that’s not funny at all, but I laugh to keep from screaming.

Or I just get drunk. Like Jim does after he flees from his Afternoon Delight. Not that Disney park workers don’t have enough to put up with, even without being pimped out, what with the long hours, the low pay, the slow boiling in the Florida heat, and the constantly being pawed by tourists, all day every day. That is about the one criticism I’d make (yes, 3800 words in): by laser focusing on one dude’s total breakdown, the film avoids systemic critique in favor of casting the whole park as one great big Haunted Mansion.

“But wait,” you say – “Jim’s just having a midlife crisis on the day he lost his job.” We started up on the Freudian level, but what the hell did he know? That’s the conscious mind. Time to sink down on the Jungian level, in the unconscious – the collective unconscious, in fact, where the archetypes live and “objective reality” is as much of an oxymoron as “military intelligence” or “The U.S. Department of Justice.”

“It’s this place!” Emily screams at Jim, later on, and it is this place. The whole of the Disney corporation is haunted by the ghost of one old man’s idealized past, and that ghost in a totally unhealthy, co-dependent relationship with the spirits of The Future: Progress, Automation, all that good shit. Their clashing energy is supposed to create the magically eternal present every park- and movie-goer’s meant to slide into for the duration of their stay, easy as the hotel pool. But most hotel pools are full of more chlorine than a World War I trench, and that shit’s caustic as fuck. Right before the “It’s this place!” line, we see a “hallucination” from Emily’s perspective for the first and (maybe?) only time. One of the French girls pulls a Venom face at her for a split-second, and is that Em breaking down from the stress of lugging what amounts to three children around Disney World, one of whom just happens to be old enough to legally drink? Or are the French girls an aspect of Disney World itself? Modern “princesses,” still older than most Grimm’s Fairy Tale princesses, most of them were closer to Sarah’s age. Like Benicio del Toro said to Finn, “It’s a machine, partner.”

And eventually, Agents of the Disney Matrix flood our Portrait of an American Family’s hotel room. One of them lays a hand upon Elliot and seems give him memories of being on the Buzz Lightyear ride he didn’t get to go on, and I remember one of ol’ Uncle Walt’s term for his employees was “imagineers.” Will they wipe this whole vacation from the whole family’s memory? Do they even need to? The memory wiping is just a metaphor anyway. These days, a person a day, every day, could die at Disney World, and we’d all get used to it in a couple weeks. Within a month at least twenty percent of us would start arguing that either it was “just the cost of doing business” or the responsibly of a secret cabal of maybe-alien, maybe-demonic pedos, composed entirely of our political enemies (but none of our political allies, naturally).

In the end, another, better Jim, with a hotter wife gets out of a better car and seems to take his much happier family into the hotel. This is the same Jim Dr. German Android saw when he scanned Jim’s mind, calling this Jim “the real you, in a part of your imagination you never thought to use…only something’s not right.” Yeah, no shit, Dr. Roboto. Even in its wildest imaginations, frustrated American middle-class masculinity can only ever conceive of a slightly-better version of itself…with a slightly hotter wife and better car, say. Maybe a job that doesn’t fire you while you’re on vacation. A corporation has harvested Jim’s imagination of himself, just like advertising companies harvest psychological research data in order to find out how to make commercials sexier. And now Imaginary Jim is incarnate in the world – much better-adjusted because he’s a wholly-owed subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company. An entirely corporate person.

And we see this everywhere, with lots of companies – don’t get it twisted. I’m singling Disney out because our subject did, but these remarks apply to all sorts of trademarks. You are actively encouraged to identify with the brands you consume, and entire sectors of the world economy are built on making sure you do. There are a lot of corporate people running around out there…and that’s scarier than all the horror movies in the world, indy or corporate. Maybe that’s also why this film isn’t more popular. I mean, a psychological horror movie about the most deliberately bland character on this or any other Earth was never going to do gangbusters. But goddamn, for a feature film debut, this is ambitious as hell, and deserves mad props for even existing in the first place. For being the best Philp K. Dick film he never wrote, and for capturing a specific breed of madness a time above. A time Before. Tomorrow is here, and there is no escape.

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