There are two movies called Escape Room out at the moment. One of them, which can currently be found on Netflix, should be avoided at all costs. The other is this little banger, from Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan, Insidious: The Last Key), a witty, inventive, and altogether more endearing slice of multiplex-friendly entertainment that’s well worth your time (should you find yourself stuck for something to watch on Friday night).
The deceptively simple premise sees six strangers brought together to test their limits via the titular game. There’s sloppy Ben (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse star Logan Miller, glimpsed in flash-forward being crushed by a compacting room), painfully shy Zoey (Taylor Russell, of the Lost In Space TV reboot fame), ruthless businessman/obvious villain Jason (Insecure‘s Jay Ellis), plucky Amanda (Daredevil‘s Deborah Ann Woll), do-gooder Mike (Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil star Tyler Labine), and escape room fanatic Danny (Murphy Brown actor Nik Dodani).
After convening in a reception area, the ragtag group soon discover the game has already begun and they are, in fact, actually trapped in a massive oven. It’s a race against the clock to figure out how to open the door and, well, escape into the next room, which in contrast is a frozen tundra of sorts. Another room is topsy turvy, with quickly disintegrating floors. There’s also a zombie outbreak-style room that allows for more insight into the six co-leads without too much plodding exposition.
Suffice to say, it’s a pretty by-the-numbers setup. Saw-lite, if you will (this idea is further encapsulated by the final line of the movie: “Let’s play a…gain” — and no, that’s not spoiling anything). What elevates Escape Room above the standard fare, as well as its rubbish Netflix cousin, is the strength of both the performances and the production design. Watching other people going through an escape room sounds boring as all hell, but here it absolutely isn’t.
Each room is designed to be fully believable as a tactile, participatory experience as well as fodder for a horror movie. The topsy-turvy room is, for my money, the most horrifying. For one thing, there’s virtually nowhere in there that’s safe to stand. For another, the floor falls apart to reveal a stories-long plummet that’s only barely distinguishable as a (pretty decent!) CGI construction.
Escape Room‘s various games are, much like Saw‘s, simultaneously impossible and ruthlessly simple. You might find yourself sitting there thinking “wait a minute, why don’t they just do this?” but the point, as with the James Wan-Leigh Whannell franchise mega-hit, is that the characters onscreen aren’t thinking as rationally as we are while watching them. This creates a nail-biting escalation of tension.
It’s also, similarly, impossible to pick off who’s going to perish and at what point (though the addition of a nerdy escape room aficionado should ring alarm bells in your head). Each of the six leads excel in their own way, from Miller’s likeable schlub to Labine’s well-meaning Southern gent, and the cast is refreshingly diverse without it being signposted. The women fare particularly well here, with Russell’s resourceful Zoey a clear standout.
The deaths have real weight to them, as opposed to the Saw movies (or at least the sequels) where often characters feel like floating body-bags devoid of any personality. We care about these people, all of whom have hidden difficulties to contend with, and root consistently for their survival. The game has serious stakes, not least because someone might die, but it’s also fun and exciting. It’s not just an endless string of torture devices solely meant to elicit pain.
Robitel’s Big Bad is a bit of a letdown, however, mostly because we don’t really get a good look at him/her/it. But a surprisingly violent final showdown suggests the game has even less merit than was immediately obvious. Still, it’s a minor quibble for a movie clearly looking to kick-start a franchise. On the strength of this first offering, there are plenty more stories to tell here, and the more complicated and involving the rooms are, the better.
Fans of IRL escape rooms may balk at the setup, but for a movie set entirely in, er, rooms Escape Room never feels confined. It’s claustrophobic, naturally, but considering how outlandish and over-complicated it could have been, Robitel and credited co-screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik manage to keep it simple, creating a vivid, well-realised world where both nothing and everything seems possible.
Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel doesn’t mess it all up by putting the players on a deserted island or something.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Adam Robitel
Writer(s): Bragi F. Schut, Maria Melnik
Stars: Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell
Release: January 4, 2019
Studio/ Production Co: Original Film
Length: 99 minutes