You think you’re clever? Maybe you’re a whiz at brain teasers. Maybe you revel in a test of your wits. Maybe you eat crossword puzzles for brunch. But could you survive Escape Room? In this enthralling horror-thriller, six strangers are offered the chance to take on the world’s most challenging escape room. If they beat the clock, they win a million dollar prize. But as things heat up, they realize the stakes are life and death.
Scripted by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik, Escape Room offers a solid concept. Personalities collide as a motley crew fights for survival in a twisted prison/puzzle where their lives are on the line. It’s basically an unofficial Cube remake with a bigger budget. Which is cool, because instead of simple cells spiked with traps, Escape Rooms’ victims leap from one wild set-up to the next, offering a mind-bending adventure. Once a waiting room becomes a literal oven, they scurry to safety into a log cabin, seemingly surrounded by a frigid wilderness. And things just get weirder from there. Each room offers a new challenge that demands intelligence, teamwork, physical endurance, and mental stamina. Because on top of the terror upon realizing they’ve entered a deadly game, the players begin to pick up on clues that their participation wasn’t random, and that their pasts are very much a part of this puzzle.
Our story begins with shy college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), who is intellectually brilliant but can’t cope with even the smallest social interactions. Once her favorite professor dares her to do something “that scares” her, she accepts the offer to try this mysterious escape room. She’s joined by a buff veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a garrulous truck driver (Tyler Labine), a giddy gamer (Nik Dodani), a scruffy drunk (Logan Miller), and a dashing suit (Jay Ellis) whose smile is equal parts alluring and menacing. There’s a delicious liveliness to their chemistry as they bicker and bond, and soon you feel like one of the group. When Labine threatens to slap a sulking Miller—“like (his) parents should have!”—you’ll chuckle along with a tickled Woll. When they uncover a hard-sought clue, you’ll feel a rush of exhilaration. And when you witness one after another face a brutal end, you might cry out in helpless despair—just as their surviving teammates do!
Escape Room is best viewed in a theater packed with a game audience. Part of the fun was hearing outbursts of alarm and excitement. And because this is PG-13, it’s a fun thrill ride for teens too. There’s no nudity. No gore. But plenty of thrills and a deeply creepy vibe. Plus, there’s something enticingly meta just beneath the surface. Like Sinister or a certain new Netflix release, Escape Room’s story implicates the viewer in the crimes committed against its heroes. A bevy of security cameras suggest to the players they are being tortured for the viewing pleasure of an unknown but obviously evil audience. Within the film, a mythos is built that could easily spin this setup into a frightening and fun franchise. But beyond that, they’re talking about us. We are the audience who demands a bunch of money and thought be poured into extravagant and violent scenarios where interesting characters are tormented and killed for our viewing pleasure. Our thirst for witnessing carnage means we are their true tormenters, a realization that might haunt you longer than Escape Room’s scares.
Briskly paced, Escape Room is a satisfying thrill ride for much of its runtime. Unique puzzles and surprising set designs keep the premise from becoming episodic. And director Adam Robitel has pulled together a cast that’s sparking with charisma, which keeps the emotional exposition from falling flat. But there’s one big problem here: the ending. The ending absolutely sucks.
When I first walked out of the theater, Escape Room’s final ten minutes put a bit of a damper on what was otherwise a fun movie. But the more I thought about it, the more it soured things. Part of it is an overlong epilogue designed to set up a sequel in the most laborious way possible. But my bigger gripe is that after all the clever clues and deranged puzzles, the way the victor wins is a slap in the face to everything that came before. The climax is senseless, lazy writing, and worst of all casually deals out a heinous political subtext. But to explain how would be major spoilers, which I hate to do before people have a chance to see it for themselves. So, stay tuned.
Header Image Source: Sony