Escape Room. 2019
Directed by Adam Robitel
Starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani, Jessica Sutton, Adam Robitel, and Yorick van Wageningen
Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.
Immediately after the death of the first of the five participants, one character exclaims “this is REAL!”, following nearly having been roasted alive inside of a room doubling as a makeshift oven moments ago; this tells you all you need to know regarding the intelligence levels of the players involved in the game of wits on hand.
With that said, Escape Room is… decent? Admittedly, I’m surprised to be typing those words considering director Adam Robitel recently stunk up cinemas with a serving of dreaded January horror cinema in Insidious: The Last Key. And while this time he has the added benefit of a fairly intriguing narrative concept from story brainchild and co-writer Bragi Schut (it’s also worth noting that there is a female co-writer, Maria Melnik, which somewhat shows during the morals and courageousness exhibited from characters of the same gender, although keep in mind absolutely no one here is interesting at all beyond their basic personality and recognizable actors embodying them), Adam Robitel also displays a knack for staging these creative set pieces that are best described as PG-13 perilous Saw endangerments. That last part is not an insult at all, as rather than throwing up buckets of blood and severed limbs while pushing the boundaries of gore, the filmmakers here are sticking to smartly crafted, multistaged puzzles that usually engage the audience just as much as the survivors scrambling to piece together all of the clues before each doomsday clock runs out.
However, Escape Room does not escape without faults. It’s almost a mood killer that the movie unnecessarily begins in media res, failing at trying to fool audiences as to who will live and die, and for reasons that come to light during the climax and that mildly make sense at best, each of the five participants (who mostly find themselves in this situation seeking the cash prize but for various different reasons considering the players come from different classes and backgrounds) are given a vague backstory involving some tragedy that has inflicted them with a form of PTSD. Naturally, the writers can’t resist taking these horrible memories and associating them with the puzzles, but the brief flashbacks of these life-altering events feel tacked on, are distracting, and add no character depth to anyone. There is also a hardcore escape room aficionado mixed into the group, seemingly existing to do nothing but provide lame humor (it’s as if the writers want to insult him for being a nerd but can’t really come up with any good zingers to do so). Not only is this character annoyingly unfunny, but he consistently believes nothing is going afoul even after dancing with death. It’s not much of a spoiler, but the film significantly becomes more enjoyable when he’s out of the equation, allowing for more tension.
Without saying too much about the games, viewers can expect everything from extremely harsh weather conditions from opposite ends of the thermostat, walls closing in on contestants swallowing every object in sight (anyone that’s ever played an old-school survival horror video game such as Resident Evil will feel right at home during that sequence, and possibly the entire movie itself, in turn rendering it better than any of the garbage Paul W.S. Anderson pumped out adapting that very franchise), preyed upon medical conditions, and a topsy-turvy barroom containing genius puzzle mechanics. Escape Room peaks with that challenge (occurring smack dab in the middle of the game) and while it still remains relatively entertaining, it never quite recovers or regains steam for the finale.
Actually, that might be putting it lightly; Escape Room gets rather dicey during its final act and epilogue, going in hard on sequel bait. Disappointingly blowing out of proportion what the corporation designing these twisted games are capable of (trust me, the film goes way over the top here), there are also at least three different ending scenes setting up a direct part two. That’s unfortunate, as before all of this insanity unfolded I was already thinking to myself “you know, I wouldn’t mind watching one of these movies every one or two years to ring in the new year, and I would especially love to see it replace the creatively bankrupt Saw series”. Ultimately, it’s that lack of confidence that will restrict Escape Room from reaching the popularity of what was once the most exciting thing about the horror genre; James Wan’s original Saw kept things at a small-scale while focusing on delivering a late-game twist that still has most audiences floored. It trusted itself and knew that, based on quality alone, people were going to be lining up for more. Even more bizarrely (and I admit this one didn’t even cross my mind until talking with a colleague about the movie afterward), the sequel bait dives headfirst into some YA fiction tropes. Essentially, the last 15 minutes of this movie are committed to becoming just about every single thing you don’t want it to become; it’s like the filmmakers are daring you to consider still writing a relatively positive review or finding overall enjoyment in the experience.
It helps that all throughout this mixed bag are notable actors putting in good work; Taylor Russell is the smartest and most morally conscious of the bunch but also easily frightened, Deborah Ann Woll comes the closest to portraying an actual character as an Iraqi war veteran, Tyler Labine is always a welcome sight, with the rest also playing their parts well. There is also something to be said that Escape Room caused me to enthusiastically turn to my +1 and say “the answer is ____” to a certain clue; that’s a level of engagement missing from modern-day horror in general, let alone the disasters that usually find themselves in theaters in early January.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com