Escape Room is an entertainingly cheesy and surprisingly innovative B-movie, but suffers when it turns its attention to setting up future sequels.
Escape Room is the latest horror-thriller from director Adam Robitel and the first since his prequel, Insidious: The Last Key, hit theaters almost exactly a year ago. Robitel started out directing shorts in the 2000s and make the jump to feature filmmaking in 2014 with the faux-documentary supernatural horror movie The Taking of Deborah Logan. He thereafter moved on to franchise fare with Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (which he wrote, but didn't direct) and The Last Key (which he directed, but didn't write), before returning to original material with Escape Room. Clearly, however, the intention is for Robitel's latest film to launch a franchise of his own, should it prove successful enough. Escape Room is an entertainingly cheesy and surprisingly innovative B-movie, but suffers when it turns its attention to setting up future sequels.
The movie follows a group of six strangers - college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), grocery store employee Ben (Logan Miller), military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), market trader Jason (Jay Ellis), blue collar worker Mike (Tyler Labine), and escape room aficionado Danny (Nik Dodani) - as they all gather in Chicago over Thanksgiving weekend to compete in an escape room challenge with a $10,000 prize for the winner(s). The contest is conducted by MINOS, a mysterious organization that sends each of the players a puzzle box containing a personalized invitation to come and find out if they can beat their "most immersive room" yet and take home the cash reward.
However, it quickly becomes obvious that this is no ordinary escape room experience, and that the players are in real danger of being killed if they fail to find all the clues and beat each room in the allotted amount of time. The group also comes to realize that each room employs incredibly advanced technology to truly "immerse" the players in their respective settings... and that whoever created these rooms are watching them at all times. Left with no other choice, the six strangers must band together, solve every riddle thrown their way, and make it out of however many escape rooms there are in one piece (or, failing that, alive).
The trailers for Escape Room have drawn comparisons to Saw and - to a lesser degree - The Cabin in the Woods, and both of those movies appear to have been influences on the actual film. Escape Room taps into the real-life escape room or escape game craze that's taken off over the past ten years and turns it into a lethal competition that tests players' ingenuity and sheer will to survive in ways that John Kramer himself would almost certainly approve of. The sci-fi and surveillance elements of the narrative - wherein some unknown audience is watching the players' every move - similarly begs comparison to the setup for Drew Goddard's cult classic horror-comedy. Robitel's new thriller is neither as gruesome as any of the Saw films (see also: that PG-13 rating) nor as self-reflexive as Cabin in the Woods, but what it lacks in gore and meta aspects it makes up for with genuinely suspenseful sequences and set pieces.
Escape Room clears the not-too-high bar it sets for itself thanks to the lean script by Maria Melnik (American Gods) and Bragi Schut (Season of the Witch) - which wastes little time getting to the actual escape rooms after making the necessary character introductions - and Robitel's steady direction. The rooms make for pretty inventive set pieces; each one presents a different challenge (one is upside down, others utilize extreme hot or cold temperatures) and are unique in their design, which allows them to avoid feeling repetitive of one another. Robitel and his DP Marc Spicer (Lights Out) do a nice job of visually establishing the environment and spatial layout of each individual room, so there's no confusion about where everyone is and/or what danger they're in at any given moment. They're aided along the way by a pulsating score (from John Carey and Brian Tyler) that has an old-school synthesized sound, giving the proceedings something of a throwback vibe.
As you might expect, the actual players in Escape Room are broadly sketched and their personal issues quickly become secondary to the question of how any/all of them are going to make it out of the individual escape rooms alive. Credit where credit's due, the film gives each of the players a distinct set of characteristics and specific backstory (each of which involves some kind of trauma), in order to distinguish them by something other than their appearance and/or what they do. The cast is composed of actors whose names may not immediately come to mind - save perhaps for Woll, thanks to her roles in True Blood and Marvel's Netflix series - but are all compelling enough in their roles to serve the film's purposes. Certain characters are clearly marked for death more than others, but it's fun to watch the best-developed protagonists come into their own and find clever ways of staving off death... for awhile, anyway.
The film eventually starts to go off the rails with its climax and epilogue. Without getting too deep into spoilers, it's fair to say that Escape Room lays the groundwork for some major reveals and developments in its third act, before ultimately dropping the payoff in favor of setting the table for a sequel or more. To be fair, the movie's premise lends itself to a franchise (where each installment features a unique set of escape rooms, like the traps in the Saw sequels) and there's a reasonable chance Escape Room will become one, thanks to its slim $9 million budget. Nevertheless, the movie fails to provide much in the way of closure for its plot and themes - and in doing so, leaves it to the sequel to fill in the blanks in its world-building.
All in all, however, Escape Room is an unexpectedly fun thrill ride, especially for a movie that's being released in the dumping ground that is the first weekend of January. It's not really a film that begs to be seen in theaters, but its set pieces do benefit from the big screen format... or a nice high-definition television setup at home down the road, depending on your fancy. Horror-thriller genre enthusiasts may want to give this a look to help them pass the time until this year's major offerings start arriving, as may those who're all caught up on their late 2018 tentpoles. Who knows: if enough people decide to play the game, this could end up being the first of many Escape Rooms to come.
Escape Room is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 95 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language.
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- Escape Room (2019) release date: Jan 04, 2019