No discussion of Escape from Tomorrow can be divorced from the production of the film. Writer/director Randy Moore's surrealist horror story was shot on location (and without permission) in Disney World. The black and white low budget film is about the real world colliding with the all too polished magic of the Disney World and the tensions that arise from misplaced expectations of escapism. Moore scrambles the geography and style of the theme park into a vision of paranoid terror all without the Disney machine realizing a feature narrative film is being made. There is an unexpected level of bravery to a guerrilla approach like this. If anything went wrong with production, if Moore and the cast were found out, there would be no film. A well-meaning tourist or Cast Member (as the Disney park employees are called) could have pulled the plug on the story. In fact, if you pay attention, you can see there are quite a few scenes where green screen is used to cover for scenes they couldn't shoot in the parks.
A knowledge of the Disney World parks is helpful in understanding everything that happens in the film. The first half takes place in the Magic Kingdom, which is geared toward younger guests. You have a couple thrill rides in Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but the rest is photo ops, meet and greets, and the super family friendly rides that don't get much more extreme than a carousel.
The second half is where the subversion really begins. EPCOT is the only Disney park that serves alcohol and Randy Moore uses it to finally push his film in a narrative direction. Outside of the hotels and Pleasure Island (an adult's only section of Downtown Disney), EPCOT is the only place in Disney World where you could potentially see stumbling drunk adults behaving badly. Escape from Tomorrow really takes advantage of that.
The first half is a bizarre experiment in twisting the purity of the park. After losing his job over the phone, Jim and his family set out for their last day in the Happiest Place on Earth. Jim, obviously distracted, focuses all of his attention on a pair of young French teenagers he follows around the park. Something is wrong and it's not necessarily just Jim. The park begins to shift in unexpected, inexplicable ways. A man is decapitated on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and no one says anything. The animatronics on It's a Small World transform into ghastly vampires and human speech and intentions are scrambled beyond belief.
This concept, in and of itself, is where Escape from Tomorrow falters. There's not enough substance to carry the more experimental front half of the film in a way that justifies the far more meaningful and engaging conclusion. Moore lays the groundwork for some interesting twists--some predictable, others intentionally unbelievable--but spends too much time exploring the alternate universe. Jim is not developed enough to carry the film as a character study and the plot and actual message don't kick in until the last 30 minutes.
The technical quality of the film is gorgeous. The cameras had to be small enough to not attract attention in the parks yet the cinematography--altered to beautiful alienating effect--is clear and disturbing. Escape from Tomorrow features scenes of the dark ride attractions that are more beautifully framed and clearer in focus than official Disney World promotional videos.
Roy Abramsohn gives a stunning performance as Jim. For all the bizarre visuals and provocative horror elements, Abramsohn's performance is totally believable. He brings a much-needed grounding influence to the story that lets every other performer and narrative/effects element pop. His commitment to the role is why Moore has a film at all; so much of the story comes down to sound and visual effects and Abramsohn sold the physicality needed to seamlessly add those elements in post.
Escape from Tomorrow is an intriguing experiment if not a very fulfilling narrative film. There's enough bizarre stuff going on to keep you watching but not enough happening to feel substantial. It's the rare case where technical wizardry alone can satisfy a film goer. It just feels like there are a lot of missed opportunities in the first half to create a much stronger feature.
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