Directed by Randy Moore
Distributed by Cinedigm
A rather fantastic controversy erupted online sometime around the fourth quarter of 2012, when it was reported that a low-budget film had employed some seriously stealthy – and ballsy – tactics to shoot a feature at Walt Disney resorts in California and Florida. Internet stories began popping up ruminating not only on the content of the film, but what the response from Disney was going to be. Rumors of canceled screenings and secret screenings and distributors & exhibitors in fear began to clutter message boards. Virtually nobody outside of the production knew a thing about it. Writer/director Randy Moore was so paranoid that someone in the U.S. would find out what he’d done and bring it to Disney’s attention that he edited the film in South Korea, where a special FX house handled the visuals, too. Potential viewers seemed less interested in what the plot could be than just having the opportunity to witness something so bold and creative. Finally, around the beginning of 2013, film festivals began to show Moore’s film – Escape From Tomorrow (2013) – and filmgoers waited with baited breath for the Mouse House to slam it down from up on high with a mighty fistful of lawyers prepared to put everyone involved into a financial hell for all eternity. Just how swift and severe would their retribution be??
The answer was silence. Disney responded with little more than a cursory acknowledgement that they were aware of the film’s existence and nothing more came of it. This was, of course, a distributor’s nightmare. Escape From Tomorrow had enjoyed a healthy dose of online buzz thanks to the fandom community’s eagerness to see a film almost wholly shot covertly at Disney World/EPCOT in Florida and Disneyland in California. The film was only going to be opening on 30 screens, which is nothing in cinema. But if Disney were to take the bait and hit the public airwaves frothing at the mouth and ceasing-and-desisting all over the place, that kind of publicity had the potential to turn this low-budgeted feature (it was reportedly made for $650,000) into a sleeper hit that certainly would have pulled in more than the meager $169,000 and change it managed. There is a massive audience for all things Disney and if social media began buzzing about Escape From Tomorrow it would have only taken a fraction of the Disney crowd to give this picture some legs. But they ignored it, and the film quietly opened and quickly went away with little fanfare.
It also didn’t help that it’s not very good.
Family man Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) is vacationing with his wife Emily (Elena Schuber) and their kids, Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) & Elliott (Jack Dalton), at the Walt Disney World resort when he gets a call from his boss that he’s been fired. Jim decides not to let this ruin their trip, so he pushes it to the back of his mind and the four of them set off for another day at the park. On the tram over, Jim finds himself enamored by two young (read: too young) Parisian girls who are strolling around together. When the family goes on It’s a Small World, Jim begins to experience hallucinations that cause strange behavior. After, he and Emily decide to split off, with Jim ostensibly taking Elliott to go on rides with just the two of them. But, no, Jim is actually being a creepy pedo stalker and following the two Parisian girls all over the park and eventually on to Space Mountain, where Elliott gets sick. When they meet back up with Emily and Sara, she & Jim fight over his decision to take their son on a stomach-churning ride. So, Emily and Elliott go back to the hotel and Jim & Sara are off to continue his leering ways. Their fun is cut short, though, when a kid pushes Sara down and she scrapes her knee, leading to a visit with the park nurse. The nurse warns Jim of something called “cat flu” before sending them on their way. As Sara plays nearby, Jim chats it up with a woman eating an ice cream and wearing an enchanting amulet he can’t take his eyes off. Suddenly the film flashes forward and Jim is having sex with this wild woman, who explains there is a secret prostitution ring operating within the Magic Kingdom and the tricks are the park’s princesses. Jim makes a quick exit to meet back up with Emily and Elliott so they can enjoy a nice, relaxing time sitting quietly by the pool.
Just kidding, Jim floats in the water near his ubiquitous Parisian pre-pubescent tweens, overtly gawking and acting like he’s begging for sex offender status. Later on, when the family returns to EPCOT, Jim & Emily finally have the fight that’s been building all day when she blasts him for getting drunk on a ride and then really scolds him when the two underage Parisians girl walk by them once again. Emily is dejected, so she and Elliott head back to the hotel while Jim takes Sara on another ride. When it’s over, he loses her and is winds up getting tasered by park staff during his search. Upon awakening, he discovers he’s trapped in a secret lab hidden inside the EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth. A standard mad scientist type explains his diabolical plan, which involved Jim’s mental manipulation from the day’s onset, and this is where the film takes a near-180 and becomes a rushed, sloppy mess before reaching a truly bizarre climax.
Here’s the real deal with Escape From Tomorrow – the first 20-30 minutes are full of this incredible sense of wonder as you find yourself watching a subversive slice of cinema tiptoeing around inside a cauldron of animated fire, but once the novelty wears off and the film’s plot becomes clearer the rest is just a slog, really. Moore’s script is, frankly, terrible and it’s this lack of strong writing preventing it from becoming anything more than a curiosity. Some reviews have stated the film has a David Lynch quality to it – likely because it’s done in black-and-white and has an unorthodox narrative – but this isn’t even in Lynch’s ballpark. Not even close. I don’t know how much Moore changed his script as the shooting progressed, but portions feel like they were written on the fly, in the park, in moments of desperation. At the onset it seems like this has the ability to be a smart psychological horror film set amidst familiar icons in the “happiest place on earth”, but once things veer into the territory of “cat flu” and “princess prostitute rings” viewers might get the sense this is all being made up as the filmmakers go along.
Escape From Tomorrow is a landmark film solely based on where it was shot and how the filmmakers pulled it off. You’ve got to remember that there was ZERO participation from Disney in making this film, so a shot as simple as two people passing on a tram could take hours to get timed just right because those trams run on Disney time, not the filmmakers’ time. There’s an appreciation for Moore’s creativity and resolve viewers cannot deny. His ingenuity allowed for something that for all intents and purposes should not exist to be a real thing. It is astonishing to watch a film that falls so far out from under Disney’s typical rubric having been shot in their parks, yet once the wonder wears off you’re stuck with an hour and change wading through an anemic script about a pederast who becomes an unwitting participant in some mischievous doctor’s grand scheme. It does not make for thrilling material. Ultimately, the film is nothing more than a sideshow attraction people will be interested in seeing for its notoriety, not the content of its story.
Cinedigm’s recent Blu-ray release of Escape From Tomorrow features a 1.85:1 1080p image that is quite proficient considering the conditions under which it was shot. The film’s cinematographer deserves some kind of award or recognition for setting up some shots months in advance based on the location of the sun. Remember, there was no way any shot could be professionally lit so every scene required pinpoint accuracy in regard to timing. The logistics behind not only making sure a shot would have the right natural lighting, but also that they could pull the shots off. To many takes or a problem in the park and suddenly all that precise work is down the drain. The decision to film in black-and-white was a smart one because in addition to catering to a low-budget aesthetic that is perfectly fitting, there would also be less concern over exact lighting between scenes; those issues, filmed in b&w, can easily be corrected in post. The filmmakers also explained that by stripping the Disney parks of their signature bright, saturated colors it preventing people from spending more time watching the background elements than paying attention to the film proper. It’s hard to knock the image for any deficiencies due to the inherent limitations in shooting something without authorization, or even the ability to set up minimal lighting. Still, if there’s any complaint it’s that shadows completely consume the image whenever the action moves to the interior of an attraction. There simply isn’t enough available light on the rides to make things stand out. Thankfully, those scenes are used sparingly. The worst aspect to this entire production is the obvious green screen work. There are a handful of scenes when shooting on location in the park simply either wasn’t working or couldn’t be done, so a background plate was shot and the actors were digitally imposed on the screen. And it looks so bad. So very, very bad. You can even see the perspective and scale are off a few times. This was another reason why the film starts to fall apart – once we exit the trappings of the parks, the illusion is lost and we realize it’s a bad film we’re watching.
An English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track does the job here, though it mostly comes across like a glorified stereo track. Rears are sporadically employed to deepen the crowd at the parks, though nothing gets close to providing a truly immersive experience. Composer Abel Korzeniowski’s score is full of classic compositions that are the kindred spirit to Disney’s classic scores of their earlier pictures. Two or three bigger moments in the film produce some deep, bassy rumbles. Subtitles are included in English SDH.
Those hoping to get all the juicy insider info out of the film’s bonus features might be a tad disappointed, though what’s included here does cover most of the bases. The audio commentary you want to listen to is with writer/director Randy Moore and cinematographer Lucas Lee Graham. After exploring how he came up with the film’s concept and made the decision to shoot it in the park, Moore discusses most of the rigors that came with such a secret production. Graham recalls the lengths he went to in order to maximize the sun’s lighting each day, which is an impressive feat that shows a true dedication to his craft. The second audio commentary is the one you should skip, as it features actors Ray Abramsohn and Elena Schuber in character as Jim and Emily. Gimmicky tracks like this rarely work and this is no exception.
“The Making of Escape From Tomorrow” is a fairly standard behind-the-scenes dissection that covers all the expected bases. Something more comprehensive would have been welcomed, given the film’s notoriety and an interest in knowing the fine details, but this does a good job of relaying most of what you’ll want to know. “Theatrical Poster Gallery” contains eight images. The Escape From Tomorrow trailer rounds out the supplements.
2 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5