Admit it: when you first heard there was a horror movie about a killer escape room coming out, you rolled your eyes, didn’t you? This puts Escape Room in an advantageous position. No one walking into it is going to expect it to be any good, so if it can just put forth the tiniest bit of effort, it’s going to surpass expectations. Well, surpass expectations it does, albeit just slightly. What amounts to little more than watching a group of people you don’t know playing a game that you aren’t able to play turns out to be a rather amusing way to spend 100 minutes. This isn’t high art, but it is enjoyable, dumb fun.
In Escape Room, six strangers sign up to participate in an escape room experience, only to find out that failing to solve the room’s clues means death. As they solve the puzzles and the plot of each of the individual rooms, they begin to see there is a larger puzzle to solve – why they were chosen to be there. They all have something in common and must work together to figure out their connection and make it out alive.
If that plot sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because you’ve seen Saw V, a film released over 10 years ago that almost has the exact same premise. Saw V isn’t the only film that Escape Room shares traits with, either. It also borrows liberally from Cube, Hostel, and The Belko Experiment. Borrowing from so many films means that Escape Room, even with the novelty of a new “hip” setting, will be overly familiar to many viewers. That lack of innovation doesn’t prevent Escape Room from being entertaining, however, even with its watered-down PG-13 rating.
Director Adam Robitel has proven himself to be a talented director in the horror genre, and he comes out mostly unscathed with Escape Room. While he is only able to pull off one genuinely suspenseful sequence (in an upside-down billiards room, no less), he manages to move things along at a brisk pace, preventing the film from becoming too much of a drag. He works within the claustrophobic confines of each room considerably well, adding a necessary amount of tension to each scene. One can’t help but lament the fact that he hasn’t directed one of his own screenplays since The Taking of Deborah Logan (which he co-wrote with Gavin Heffernan), as neither Escape Room nor last year’s Insidious: The Last Key have matched the creative success he had with his debut film.
The script, which was co-written by Bragi F. Schut (Season of the Witch) and Maria Melnik (TV’s American Gods), is fairly pedestrian, too often spelling things out for the audience that they could easily infer on their own. Characters think aloud and narrate their actions so frequently (we’re talking Mandy Moore in 47 Meters Down levels of unnecessary narration, here) that it becomes comical. To top things off, Schut and Melnik don’t seem confident enough in their screenplay’s ability to sustain tension, so they commit a serious narrative error by starting the film in media res during one its final scenes in an unsuccessful attempt to build suspense. Not only does this have the opposite effect, but it also spoils the whole “who’s going to make it out alive” aspect of the plot.
The film bites off more than it can chew when it comes to character development and social commentary. Initial attempts to flesh out the characters by delving into their past traumas are intriguing, but they are fleeting moments that aren’t given the screen time they deserve. Similarly, a late-in-the-game critique of the 1% feels like an afterthought, as the film ends before it can even explore that analysis (though the teased sequel could lead to Hostel: Part II levels of successful world-building). Escape Room is at its best when it is simply trying to be dumb fun. Any attempts at going deeper than surface level tend to fail at their intention.
All of that being said, the script isn’t a complete failure. A few wise decisions are made along the way, like having the characters realize from the get-go that they need to work together. This prevents any unnecessary in-group fighting that could bog down the proceedings. Schut and Melnik even subvert expectations with the order in which the characters are knocked off. Suffice it to say that not everyone dies in the order you would expect them to in a film of this ilk.
Also helping matters is that, for the most part, the six protagonists are likable. With the exception of Jay Ellis‘ (HBO’s Insecure) Jason, who is an intentionally abhorrent character, you do actually care about these people. Make no mistake, these are still two-dimensional characters with one or two defining traits: Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll, TV’s True Blood and Daredevil) is a war veteran, Zoey (Taylor Russell, Netflix’s Lost in Space) is intelligent but introverted, Ben (Logan Miller, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), is frazzled and apathetic, Danny (Nik Dodani, Alex Strangelove) is an escape room expert for some reason and Mike (Tyler Labine, Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil) is, well, he’s there. The actors and actresses imbue these thinly-drawn characters with a likability that makes you want to see them make it out alive, a vital quality for a horror film.
Technical merits are impressive as well. The rooms themselves look fantastic. Production designer Edward Thomas (Doctor Who) has put together a sextet of escape rooms ranging from the normal (a simple waiting room that doubles as a giant oven) to the bizarre (a room themed to look like the white noise on a television screen). Each one of them has a distinct personality and feel, making each foray into a new room immediately intriguing. The traps do have a Jigsaw-like sensibility to them, but that doesn’t prevent them from being fun to watch unfold.
Escape Room is an entertaining, if somewhat generic endeavor. Boasting solid performances and some beautiful sets, you could do a lot worse at the cinema right now. It’s a fun time-passer. Not great. Not terrible. But a perfectly serviceable way to start off the 2019 film year.