PG-13, 100 mins.
2019, PG-13, 100 mins.
Taylor Russell as Zoey / Deborah Ann Woll as Amanda / Tyler Labine as Mike / Logan Miller as Ben / Jay Ellis as Jason / Adam Robitel as Gabe / Nik Dodani as Danny / Jessica Sutton as Allison
Directed by Adam Robitel / Written by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik
Ah yes, no beginning of the year film season would be complete without another entry in the PWP film genre, or a genre of films containing premises without payoff.
ESCAPE ROOM is a
new psychological horror thriller centered on the concept of, yes,
escape rooms, a physical adventure game in which players have to solve a
series of complicated puzzles and riddles utilizing well hidden clues in
order to escape from a seemingly inescapable room.
The core premise of ESCAPE ROOM is intriguing enough on paper - a
group of completely unrelated people take part in a series of escape
rooms, only to realize that each one can easily kill them - and, for the
most part, director Adam Robitel manages to drum up reasonable levels of
frightening unease throughout. But
ESCAPE ROOM utterly implodes in its final act and never concludes in any
satisfying manner, and as a result never fully takes its premise to
thoroughly enthralling heights.
ESCAPE ROOM does
get by a bit on a level of sheer ludicrousness.
I appreciated the logic straining death traps that these poor souls
found themselves ensnared in, and for about 60-plus minutes the film is
preposterous fun. Despite
being somewhat diverting, though, the film doesn't really contain much of
a plot, let alone solid character development.
Bragi Schut's and Maria Melnik's screenplay does start off with a
bang, showcasing a scene of nightmarish claustrophobia in detailing how
one of the aforementioned players in the game tries to escape from one
diabolical room that's collapsing in on itself.
He desperately and frantically tries to search for some last minute
clues, fully realizing that death is eminent in a few short seconds.
This introductory scene is undeniable suspenseful, but ultimately
doesn't work within the larger framework of the main story and seems
revealed to be a flashback, and then the film flashes forward, which means
that we already know the last known survivor of the group of these escape
rooms. Framing devices
typically can work, but here it all but checks off every character that
will eventually not make it to the end.
As we are whisked
back a few days we meet the six future escape room players, all of whom
are afforded some superficial depth based on backstories that are
sprinkled in throughout the story in the form of more flashbacks.
Unfortunately, most of them are stock genre types that all share
the same commonality of being damaged goods, in one form or another.
There's the incredibly smart, but introverted
college freshmen Zoey (Taylor Russell); a rich narcissistic
stockbroker Ben (Logan Miller); the ex-con Jason (Jay Ellis); an ex-marine
and PTSD sufferer in Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); truck driver Mike (Tyler
Labine); and escape room fanboy Danny (Nik Dodani).
All of them receive mysterious puzzle boxes in the mail that, if
solved, will grant them the location and access to one for one of the most
elaborate escape rooms around. Predictably,
all make it and converge to the escape room site.
The prize for
making it through all of these escape game rooms is ten grand...plus
bragging rights...so all of the players have a stake in
winning. Their first room
seems nonchalant and safe enough, but then its only entrance door handle breaks and locks them
in...and it's the beginning of serious and
alarming trouble. All of the
participants soon realize the severity of their plight when gargantuan
oven-like heaters begin to turn on in the room, threatening to burn them
to a crisp within minutes. As
they make it out of the first room with just mere seconds to spare they
all find themselves in a whole new soul crushing puzzle room, with each
getting more complicated that the other.
One of them includes a fake outdoor wilderness landscape that's
also frigidly cold, leaving the unprotected players freezing to death.
There's also a fairly ingenious room that's essentially a bar with
a pool table...that's all upside down.
It goes without saying that with each room escaped one of the
players is left behind for dead, leaving, yup, one player that the intro
scene already established. And
then there's the unavoidable and nagging notion that someone definitively
evil is behind all of this pulling all the strings.
Again, the core
premise of ESCAPE ROOM is one of endless creative possibilities and
promise. And, to be fair,
Robitel generates early sequences of eerie dread and anxiety in showing
these frightened and fatigued players all trying to band together to stave
off impending death. And
ESCAPE ROOM crafts an undulating sense of the ominously tight confines
that these players find themselves in, which predicates their combined
detective skills to make some sense of the hell they're in.
The film also has a sense of bonkers playfulness it showcasing
these nonsensical death traps, especially for how each one contains an
element that tests the patience and sanity of all players involved (I
especially liked how that upside down pool room has this annoying jukebox that
plays only one song, at maximum volume, over and over again to numbing
effect). There's also a
condemned hospital/surgery escape room that looks ripped from something
from a SAW sequel (a franchise that this film obviously was inspired by)
that culminates in a ghoulish manner.
One thing I'll give ESCAPE ROOM is that it fully embraces the sheer
silliness of these various escape rooms and set pieces and it knows
how to drum up the fear inducing panic of each one.
And early on, I was positively hooked with this film's macabre
Still, and having
said that, there are so many moments in ESCAPE ROOM that the very game
viewer in me found difficult to swallow in the ways they stretched modest
credulity. The death trap
rooms are, no question, fiendishly enjoyable for their sheer
outlandishness, but the longer the film progressed I began asking myself
many questions about this film's internal logic, like, for example, how
did this apparently rich and shadowy entity manage to build such a
dizzyingly convoluted series of rooms in a massive Chicago high-rise
without being detected? How
was it covered up? Did they
pay off the contractors, construction builders, and architects?
I'm willing to give ESCAPE ROOM a bit of a free pass in that regard,
seeing as it emerges as more pure fantasy than reality as it progresses,
but the way the screenplay manages to bring the players together and
expand upon their respective histories seems a bit forced and contrived.
It also becomes relatively easy to predict which one will bite the
dust with each new room.
I was almost willing to give ESCAPE ROOM a modest passing grade as a piece of better than average January entertainment until the film careened towards its climax, during which time the story doesn't really conclude or even end with reasonable closure, only to then instead go out of its way to not-so-subtly hint at kicking off a franchise of more sequels by culminating everything here with a cliff-hanger ending. Ugh. ESCAPE ROOM has a pretty solid two acts, but a totally unearned non-third act that frustratingly never answers key mysterious questions that the narrative posed. I hate it when films pull this kind of bait and switch ending with viewers, not to mention how modern studios seem utterly incapable of making solid series introductory installments with a absolute beginning, middle, and end that discretely promise more to come. The entirety of ESCAPE ROOM feels like one long glorified trailer for more entries to come, and for that I cry foul. It's too bad, because this thriller had its tense moments of absurd pathos and involved me early on, but by the time the end credits rolled I was ironically running for the exits to flee. I don't think that was the makers' intentions here, and ESCAPE ROOM emerges as a somewhat effective, but mostly disappointing puzzle box not worth solving.