The Pitch: Six mysterious strangers from all walks of life receive the same gift from somebody close to them: a puzzle box, which once solved, reveals an offer. For $10,000, all each has to do is survive a series of cutting-edge escape rooms. Nobody involved seems to have too many questions at all on this point, so they soon meet in a concrete high-rise deep within Chicago to play. As the very first room makes clear, however, this is more than just a game, and soon each person has to use their unique skills (and past secrets) to help the group and survive the Escape Room.
Wicked Game: “Escape rooms, but you can actually die” is the kind of oh-duh elevator pitch that was going to end up yielding a horror movie sooner or later, and here we sit. As its gimmicky premise goes, Escape Room has an uphill battle to negotiate. Its PG-13 rating means that its terrors have to skew more intellectual than grisly, but director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) still pushes the rating about as far as it can go. Drownings, electrocutions, and other ugly fates await the “players”, and there’s a sense of lurid unpleasantness that hangs heavy over the movie as a result.
Yet on the other hand, because the foundation of any escape room setup is puzzle-solving, Robitel also has to enliven a horror movie that’s predicated on watching people solve dangerous puzzles. He finds some ingenious ways to play this out (a cavernous bar flipped upside down, with a Goonies-style falling floor, is particularly memorable), but after a while, Escape Room struggles to find its way around its own premise. By design, a substantial amount of the movie involves walking the characters and audience through new scenarios before something dangerous starts happening again, and it creates a dulling pattern that sucks most of the intrigue out of the movie before long. The body count feels less frightening than obligatory, and since there’s little risk of the puzzles going unsolved, Escape Room begins to feel a lot like watching someone else partake in that particular activity. It’s about as exciting as that sounds.
Cannon Fodder: Given the film’s straightforward premise, Escape Room moves with a similar sense of narrow efficiency when it comes to its targe…main characters. Each gets an origin story, which ultimately plays into the maze in some way, and you can virtually feel the movie checking off boxes as you watch. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is a literally and figuratively scarred military veteran. Zoey (Taylor Russell) is a bright but anxiety-wracked college student struggling to cope with trauma of her own. Ben (Logan Miller) is a hard-drinking stock clerk, Mike (Tyler Labine) an affable dad type Jason (Jay Ellis) a rude power broker. Danny (Nik Dodani) is an escape room enthusiast, just here to enjoy the game.
Each is given a type (cocky, frightened, steely, etc.) and a unique set of skills, so to speak, and that’s about that for the storytelling until it’s time for a dramatic flashback or five. The actors do what they can with the thin material, and as casts of future dead people go, this is an above-average group in terms of engagement. But Escape Room races through its progressions with little regard for mood, the movie assuming that the audience will be every bit as invested in solving its puzzles as those involved. Without any real investment in the characters, though, this is just a horror movie featuring a well-above-average amount of standing and waiting.
The Verdict: A lot about Escape Room is, for lack of more eloquent phrasing, odd. It’s odd in its very premise, as discussed. It’s odd in the way that its other standout setpiece, a cluttered library collapsing in like a trash compactor, is burned asynchronously as a cold open, when it’s the exact kind of scene the film’s rushed final act could have used. It’s odd in that its late revelations feel less like anything fitting the movie up to that point than an attempt to shock the audience with any kind of reveal at all. It’s just odd.
It’s also not all that good, even if it’s hardly the kind of “bad” that most would get riled about. Escape Room is cut from one of Hollywood’s most familiar cloths: the “mall horror” movie. High on concept, low on innovation, palatable enough for wide audiences to kill an evening. It lacks the kitschy thrills that set some of the better entries in that canon apart, and aside from them, there’s precious little else going on. If anything, it’s just a pretty poor advertisement for escape rooms at large.
Where’s It Playing? As the first wide release of 2019, starting January 4th.