It would be disingenuous to call Escape from Tomorrow “the best film of Sundance 2013,” because I’m only here a couple of days and there are literally dozens of movies I won’t be able to compare it to. It’s certainly the best film “I” saw this year though, and beyond that, one of the most daring motion pictures I’ve encountered in a very, very long time. Perhaps you’ve heard of the controversy?
First-time director Randall Moore filmed Escape from Tomorrow at Disney World. “The” Disney World. He didn’t have permits, but he shot a fully scripted, feature-length movie there anyway, using familiar iconography to tell a story about middle-aged paranoia, dreams destroyed and horror in the seemingly happiest of places. It is, in some respects, the mirror image of everything Disney stands for: a perverse, imaginative illustration of the darkest nether regions of the human condition, desperately sapped of reassurance and hope. Disney, it has been theorized by everyone I’ve met at Sundance this year, will doubtless be displeased by all of this, and any distributor with the testicular fortitude necessary to release Escape from Tomorrow is rolling loaded dice against a litigious, multi-billion dollar corporation well-known for preserving their intellectual properties at any cost.
While Escape from Tomorrow dances around some aspects of the Disney legacy, never using the “D” word without obfuscation, for example, the locale is unmistakable. The “Buzz Lightyear” ride is a plot point, as are the women who play Disney Princesses at the theme park, and something truly disturbing happens to the Epcot Center and a few other famous landmarks. I’m no scholar. I have no idea how much trouble the filmmakers could get into for this. I just know that the result of their efforts is an emotionally walloping experience that, for all its flaws, I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
Roy Abramsohn and Elena Schuber are Jim and Emily, a married couple with two children on vacation at “the happiest place on Earth,” an expression that, in this context, requires quotation marks. As the film begins, Jim gets a call saying he has lost his job, a sudden betrayal of his happy façade that spirals into a day of screaming, unreasonable children, a loveless (and seemingly sexless) marriage, and a series of blackouts, hallucinations and inexplicable phenomena that are often shocking and always brimming with bizarre thematic purpose. The performances betray a quiet desperation and, at times, also an overt desire to break free of life’s brutal shackles in the most self-destructive manners possible.
Escape from Tomorrow grabs you from the feverish opening credits and, frankly, occasionally lets go. The slow-burn of the film’s first half is rendered unnecessarily slow by an early horror show that should, perhaps, have kicked the nightmare into high gear but, instead, quickly recedes to allow the more realistic and naturally-paced human drama back into the foreground. The quieter acts would have worked just fine if we hadn’t been teased too early with promises of more, and still serve their intended, unsettling functions, but do seem to drag as a result, only to finally kick into a psychotic final act that’s as unforgettable as it is inscrutable and sloppy. To ruin the film’s course of events would be a crime, and I’m not about to commit it here, but then again, I have no idea when you’re likely to see this yourself. Suffice it to say, Randall Moore’s imagination explodes into unexpected areas, never without obvious reason, but often without cohesion and clarity.
The joyful memories of youth, and the carefully maintained images of wholesome entertainment that inspires, are but a thin façade masking harsh realities and, at least sometimes, an ominous undercurrent that should not go unexamined, yet is consistently obfuscated with the fervor of, well, a copyright lawyer with unlimited financial backing. I have no idea if Disney will cause the stir we’re all anticipating over Escape from Tomorrow, I just know that, if they do, they would be confirming the film’s many troubling suspicions. Whether you love the film’s blend of relatable personal anxiety with psychotropic trips to Wonderland, or are turned off by its cynicism, or just find Escape from Tomorrow distractingly gimmicky, it’s an experience you deserve to have for yourself. When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true… even the night terrors.
Photo Credits: Mankurt Media LLC
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz