I don’t know if there’s a term for it, but there’s a certain archetype within horror movies whereby a group of strangers – sometimes only ostensibly – are thrust into a dangerous series of predicaments by some mysterious kidnapper for various reasons. The obvious example is the Saw franchise, but preceded by even that is a trilogy of films hailing from Canada known as Cube. While the latter tends to be a more intellectually inclined than the former, both are gruesome enough in their kills that they could easily be construed as horror movies, easily rated R. However, here comes one of those setups that’s also being marketed to the teen set by eschewing gore altogether and relying on wit and tension to deliver thrills. That’s one reason why I would distinguish the first wide release of 2019, Escape Room, as more of a thriller per se, even though it’ll satiate much of the same cravings. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last five years or so, you’ll know that the title is referring to a craze of sorts whereby people voluntarily enter a themed room from which they must – you guessed it – escape by solving a series of interconnected puzzles. So naturally Hollywood was bound to crank a filmic version out by making the manufactured terror real, at least for the players on display. Unfortunately, that’s a big part of how the aptly named Escape Room goes wrong, by way of having to justify or at least explain why anybody would be put in this kind of scenario for real. And it doesn’t help that the characters are two-dimensional to a fault, given dialogue so stilted they couldn’t possibly make any of this seem logical. There is nevertheless some fun to be had here, what with admiring the design of some of the rooms, but the closer the film gets to reaching its endgame, the less time we have to stop and admire all the good set design in favor of reaching a hasty conclusion.
In Escape Room, six strangers find themselves with an invitation to take part in a state-of-the-art escape room, which is purportedly so difficult, that they’ll be rewarded $10,000 should they be able to make it out. The players are Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell), a shy college student looking to try a new experience; Ben Miller (Logan Miller), a down-on-his-luck stockboy with little opportunity in life; burned war veteran Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll); the genial Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine), a former miner; aspirational stock trader Jason Walker (Jay Ellis); and escape room lover Danny Khan (Nik Dodani). Once the game beings, they must work together to assemble the clues and orchestrate their own escape. But as the successive rooms become more challenging and more perilous, it becomes evident that the danger is quite real, and that their lives are actually at stake. It is then that they’re left to question not only who is doing this to them and to what ends, but why they were chosen to participate from the start.
Escape rooms in reality often have a storyline, but ultimately still wouldn’t stand against reason if you were to deconstruct its logic. Usually. Like, why does this space station we’re on have a series of padlocks that can only be opened by rearranging all these scrambled letters? Were we expecting to be boarded by aliens and didn’t want to make taking over the ship easy for them? But, seeing as this is a narrative piece of fiction, I guess they had to come up with some explanation for why all of this is happening for real. And boy is the reveal not only underwhelming, but humdrum as hell. While I’ll refrain from outright spoiling it, the ending does involve a bit of dialogue that’s about on par with Dr. Claw conspiring against Inspector Gadget, effectively injecting the film with a level of cartoonish-ness that it cannot recover from.
As far as the creativity of the rooms are concerned, Escape Room does moderately well for itself, managing to balance legitimate thrills with intellectual design. I have absolutely no idea how any realistic person could solve the tasks that these characters are presented with, especially with the prescribed level of tension, but therein lies a certain logic problem that can only be brushed aside by suspension of disbelief. Of course, don’t expect any actual escape room to meet the level of production design seen here, but if we have to settle for watching people go through these cool designs rather than experience them ourselves, it’s mostly worth it. Unfortunately, I can only apply those accolades to the first half of the featured rooms, as the latter half fall victim to the ramping up of the plot and mystery to the point that certain solutions make zero sense and the movie speeds past you trying to play catchup as a result. Again, I do not envy the screenwriters who were tasked with fleshing out a concept that fundamentally does not seem to fit into a filmic format.
Fortunately, one of the benefits they had to make the action feel realistic were the actors, particularly the proven talents of Miller, Woll and Labine. While one of my first gripes with the film was the lack of well-written characters making any non-escape room scene fall entirely flat, the actors were able to pick up the pace once the proverbial sh*t hit the fan. Granted, fear is one of the easier emotions to portray, but they wear it with aplomb.
At the end of the day, Escape Room is pretty flawed when it comes to the story department, but for those seeking cheap thrills, you could do a lot worse. This is one that clearly sees itself as a nascent franchise, and if the box office residuals are favorable, they may just get their wish. But seeing as its denouement was its weakest part, I really hope that doesn’t happen. The only way they’d be able to make this good going forward would be to strip it for parts and remove any sense of seriousness. Because the taste we got at the end was so cheesy it knocked Escape Room down a whole letter grade for me. Well, in this case, number, but you know what I mean. For now, I’d just recommend an authentic escape room.
Final Score: 4/10