There is a lot to say about what this film “means” and what it is “about”- read any message board or blog comments and you’ll get your variety of theories, among them the breakdown of the family unit, the power of imagination, descent into madness…all the topic avid film over-analyzers love. Despite the strange, non-narrative second act, too me, it is painfully obvious in my mind that Escape From Tomorrow is ultimately about the loss of masculinity. There’s a war on men, haven’t you heard? I can’t exactly feel excited about such an anti-feminist sentiment, but some good cinematography and absurd story arcs would make me certainly want to watch it.
The intrigue of how this film was made will always outshine the content. The director filmed most of it at Walt Disney World and Disneyland without permission (not as if they would give him permission anyway), using iphone cameras and hidden film crews. A Netflix summary would read “On a trip to with his family, an ordinary finds out that Walt Disney World in not quite the happiest place on earth- in fact, it’s quite the opposite.” After its debut at Sundance, everyone was sure that there was no way this film would ever get distributed. Spoiler alert: it was just released on VOD and in select theaters.
There’s a lot to say about if this “works” film- it’s at the “meh” level on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is uneven and flawed- and there are plenty of “what the fuck did I just watch?” moments. However, film obsessors love badly made movies, because we like to believe that everything in the film happens for a reason- there are no mistakes; everything was intentional. We are steadfast in our beliefs even when the director himself denies any interpretation. [This obsession bordering on delusion is the very subject of the film Room 237, where it is posited that The Shining is about faking the moon landing and the oppression of Native Americans, among other theories.]
Watching Escape in real time, I didn’t quite feel the excitement I got from watching the trailer. I was irritated of after watching about half the film of the family navigating the park to it suddenly to launch into David Lynch-esque moments of weirdness- it seemed too to be a rush to make it weird with only 25 minutes left of its short 90 minute running time.
But then I marinated on the film for a day.
I still fully recognized the flaws, but my intrigue of the strange and horrible films got the best of me. I started ruminating on the theories of what the film meant- it had to mean something, anything.
But let’s make sure we get the obligatory summary out of the way: The film opens with the family in their hotel, including husband Jim, wife Emily, and and young tikes Elliott and Sara. Jim, who is hiding out on the hotel balcony to drink, receives a quick phone call establishing that he has just been fired from his job. He decides not to inform the family, possibly from avoidance more than efforts not to destroy the vacation. The first act of the film follows the family around the theme park, waiting in long lines, laughing at rides, and enjoying the crowds. It’s a sense of normalness and the mundane that makes it intriguing. The choice to film in black and white may have been merely out of convenience, but it makes a striking view of Disney World, which we are used to seeing in nauseating technicolor; it certainly helps the viewer see the theme park in a different light. Jim, against his wife’s wishes, drinks too much and gets sick on the ride, both physically and by seeing the evil faces of the dolls in “It’s a A Small World.” Jim is played quite well by an unknown, who embodies the personality of “everyman”, who secretly hates himself.
Emily, on the other hand, is portrayed as the uptight, criticizing shrill wife. She constantly chides Jim for his behavior, both in drinking and how he is not acting like the parent he should be. If only she would leave him alone- she’s spoiling the very essence of what it is to be a man, and emasculating him with the burden of being a family man. Jim also becomes obsessed with some underage girls he keeps seeing around the park. They represent his longing for youth, excitement, sexuality, and to be free from the family. Aside from the disturbing pedophilia, it represents the happiness Jim cannot have. He is then seduced, drugged, and presumably raped by a mysterious woman, who claims to know about the evil powers of the park. After losing his daughter in the crowds, he is captured by some park “operatives”, and the film suddenly goes off the rails or really picks up, depending on how much you like your films to go from normal family to bizarre imagery within minutes.
After seeing lewd images on the Spaceship Earth ride, Jim is then trapped inside spaceship earth with a mad scientist, who reads his mind. He then kills the scientist, who turns out to be a robot. He escapes to the witch’s hotel room where he finds his daughter, dressed as a princess and pretending to be dead. It’s one weird scene after the other with no surface level connection. These are all obstacles imposed by this theme park experience, which represents the ultimate white picket fence, nuclear family experience. He finally returns to his hotel room, where he becomes violently ill in the bathroom, because of a supposed “cat flu,” which is an allegory for about a thousand other theories about the film which I may get into in my text 10K work longread on this film.
Escape From Tomorrow does however include most beautiful and disturbing images I have seen in a film recently. Elliott awakes in the middle of the night and enters the bathroom, seeing his father, near death, begging for his help. Elliott looks for a minute, and then closes his door on his father and crawls back to bed with his mother. I don’t usually like kids in movies, but Elliott can be both adorable, loving, and pretty creepy. This simple symbolism a middle school English staff should be able to get- Jim has failed Elliott as a parent, by not being the family-oriented family man he should have, he has failed to be the provider for the family, and earlier in the film, failed to get him to the Buzz Lightyear ride, which was Elliott’s biggest wish. He clearly chooses his mother over his fuck-up father.
The next morning, after Emily discover’s Jim’s grinning corpse (super creepy), no police or paramedics are present, but appear to be internal agents from Disney World that are there to cover up the whole debacle. [As a former employee of Disney World, there were always rumors of these deep cover agents of Disney who ‘took care” of the unpleasantries that happened within park grounds.] Emil grieves, but Elliott is granted the wish of riding Buzz Lightyear, as one of the agents implants the false memory in him. As the agents load the body bag onto a truck, we see an attractive couple pull up to the hotel- it’s Jim, with a cool guy fedora and a younger, bustier wife and attractive child check into the hotel. This is the life that Jim always wanted; arm candy and a sense of cool, a sense of his true manhood. This is Jim’s afterlife, which he is allowed to play out as long as he likes, a reward for a punishment of being emasculated in his real life. The two French girls then appear as Tinkerbell-like fairies, just before the credits. Despite any pacing issues throughout the film, the final minutes from Elliott rejecting his dying father to the credits is nothing shy of brilliance.
As much as the premise and interpretation I am putting forward bothers me as a whole, the actual representation of it is a success, cloaked with a light film of allegory and symbolism. However, this interpretation also seems it was stolen from the Mens Rights Activists of Reddit. Jim admits to his son that he does find his wife beautiful, but in a “bookish, Tina Fey way” which is incredibly bothersome. As if being bookish and like Tina Fey (who, for the purposes of Hollywood, is shortform for “ugly nerd”) is punishment Jim has to endure. It’s hard to know if the film maker (1) actually had the masculinity angle in mind (2) actually does believe that men are being blocked from their true potential as men and.or (3) was making a statement against this theory. Why, for instance, couldn’t Emily be the parent who descends into the madness? There is at one point where she does observe the distorted faces of the characters and becomes scared, hinting that Jim may not be the only “affected.” Perhaps the concept of being the perfect wife and mother would drive her to madness. A sequel, perhaps?
It’s too late now for films to become true “kitsch” or ironically bad, we’re in a post-modern and too ironic-for-our-own-good world. However, I can see the negative critics of Escape From Tomorrow warm up to it as a modern cult film, enjoying it in a theater at midnight full of people enjoying it ironically. I’m curious to see where this film and its notoriety will lead the director/creator and the actors, because I think they are really on the verge of something like we’ve never seen before.
I’ve always found Walt Disney World and its self proclaimed status as the “happiest place on earth” rather chilling. When I worked there, oh, sorry, I mean was a “cast member” there, and being behind the scenes reveals some really twisted and depressing realities. I’m just happy that someone else finally feels the same.