I finally saw this film, which I’d heard about earlier this year after a bit of controversy and positive critical hype that led to a buzz of intrigue by indie-movie fans. I’d read it was a funny/creepy/groundbreaking movie, that was filmed entirely at Disney World and Disney Land, covertly, without the permission of the park. Which led to some speculation about whether Mickey Corp. would come after Randy Moore, the creator and writer of Escape. So far the litigious company hasn’t made a single peep about the film.
Anyway I saw it at an independent theater last night (although it happens to be available on Amazon) and agreed that it was all of those things I’d heard. It had some pretty awkwardly funny moments and was pretty disturbing throughout. And while I don’t know if I actually LIKED it and could watch it over and over again, it was still undeniably groundbreaking. It was one of the best pieces of cultural critique that I’ve seen in a long while.
Before I go any further: In case you do want to see it, I’m going to drop some spoilers here so I’d stop reading if you wanted to go in without me tainting your opinion.
The very short, non-spoiling summary: Escape is about a father, Jim, who gets fired from his job and slowly loses his mind at a theme park that he’s visiting with his family. While he’s there, things start to get really…weird. For an extremely spoilery description of the story check out its Wikipedia page.
The tagline is “Bad things happen everywhere,” so clearly, Moore is every bit deliberate in subverting the theme park’s brand as the “happiest place on earth.” The film is unflinchingly critical of modern life and the endless pursuit of fulfilling our insatiable desires. It shows the disgusting and very real underbelly of our society convinced by the idea that contentment is always just beyond our fingertips. Media, advertising, and the whole structure of consumerism is built upon convincing everyone that you just aren’t happy enough. You need to go here. You need this thing. You need this lifestyle. Our insecurities about being adequate is what drives consumerism.
I don’t know how intentional Moore was in this respect, but what added so much to the film was how thrillingly taboo the whole thing feels, just because we know that it was filmed at these Disney locations in secret. Which brings me to the main reason I found it so novel: the way that it portrays privatized, inaccessible culture, and how horrifying that can be.
I think the thrilling feeling you have knowing that Moore did this without the permission of Disney, plays on our almost unconscious understanding that some of our experiences are not really owned by us. Sure, the memories of riding rides, exploring the park, watching the shows would obviously remain in our heads. But those experiences are untouchable to us. We’re extremely limited in our ability to truly interact with it, change it, or even express it.
At least in the U.S. we have the power of fair use to protect works like Escape, that allow us to criticize these trademarked, copyrighted things. But we need to make sure to protect and even expand our right to comment and interact with culture. The images, songs, slogans and stories that surround us are locked up, and may even get locked up even more due to increasingly insane intellectual property rules.
Which is why it’s so perfect that this film was made at Disney: the company is one of the main proponents of maximizing “intellectual property” rights to keep culture controlled, while working its darnedest to make their content visible and likeable. Their business model is based on having creative monopolies that make it ever more profitable for them to be the sole gatekeepers of those works.
I think Escape perfectly encapsulates this tension in our culture. It captures the current awkward and precarious stage of dealing with inaccessible, over-privatized culture, and the creeping chilling effect this already has on people. My hope is that these kinds of cultural exchanges become less and less exclusionary and one-sided. Someday, I hope we’ll look at this movie and be able to marvel at it as a work of art from a bygone era.