A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2019

ESCAPE ROOM jj
 

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 counterproductive.  It's 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 new one 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 journey. 

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.  

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