Escape Room is a horror-thriller that takes the popular puzzle-solving experience to a terrifying extreme. Enticed by a big cash prize, six strangers take on what’s reputed to be the world’s most challenging escape room. But once the game’s begun, they learn they may not escape with their lives. In my review of the film, I praised its various virtues but cursed its catastrophic climax for ruining the fun. While I kept it vague ahead of the film’s release, below I dive into spoilers to reveal why and how Escape Room is ruined by its ending.
MAJOR spoilers below for Escape Room! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
Though there are six players in the mix, clever college student Zoey (Taylor Russell) is the clear protagonist. She’s the face on the poster and the heart of the film, going to the Minos Escape Rooms not so much for the prize but as a challenge to herself to be braver. Lucky for her teammates, Zoey proves a puzzle-solving prodigy who repeatedly saves their lives. But as the game gets more gruesome, Zoey realizes playing by the rules is no way to win.
Midway through this menacing maze, the others scour the triage room for clues while Zoey focuses on the security cameras. She realizes the game is rigged against them. So, instead of trying to figure out the trick of the EKG machine, she attacks every camera even when it means being left behind as the room fills with poisonous gas. While others go on to duke it out in the drug trip room, Zoey takes a cue from her quantum mechanics class at the top of the film in a dubious application of quantum Zeno effect. Essentially, with the cameras down, there’s no one who can see that Zoey didn’t actually die from the gas attack. So when an armed, Hazmat-suited clean-up crew of two arrives, Zoey is lying in wait. And here’s where things get stupid.
The finale of the film confirms Zoey’s suspicions that Minos makes specialty escape rooms to torture players for the amusement of an anonymous but wildly wealthy and powerful audience. Some churlish white guy identifies himself as the Game Master and is happy to monologue about the whole thing before trying to murder Ben, the game’s “winner.” Several things don’t add up in this section. For one: how did Ben escape the final room? He failed the puzzle but dumb-lucked into the trap door? For another, the scowling Game Master explains Ben’s would-be doom by asking if a horse gets a prize for winning the Kentucky Derby. (They get a flower necklace at least, and certainly not strangled to death immediately following their final lap.) Then there’s Zoey’s in-the-knick-of-time return. You might also wonder how in a building made up of many floors and bizarre pathways Zoey was able to so swiftly stumble upon the pair in their deadly battle. All of the above strains credulity. But the most frustrating thing is how Zoey and Ben defeat the Game Master. They shoot him to death with the gun Zoey plucked off his minions.
Escape Room presents a mind-bending labyrinth by Minos—like Minotaur?—that tests not only its players’ wits but also their physical and mental endurance. But what winning ultimately comes down to is none of that, just who has a gun. At the start, the others scold Ben when he tries to just break his way out of first death trap. Violence as an answer is initially rejected as ineffective and juvenile. But ultimately, it is embraced by the smartest player as the only way to win.
It’s lazy writing. Before this, Escape Room offered a mounting series of jaw-dropping challenges to its players. Then, to win the day, that’s all chucked away. They didn’t have to outsmart the Game Master. They just had to kill him, which does fall in line with horror genre expectations. Galling is that instead of employing a tool from the game to give him a fitting end—an empty mineshaft, a smuggled tool—they just found a gun. In a movie all about planning and strategy, its heroes dumb-lucked into their violent victory.
Worse yet, this ending sends a grim message. You think about certain political leaders who bark about how the system is rigged. Who encourage their followers they best protect their families from out-of-touch elites who think they’re smarter and better and more deserving than you. Better get you a gun, backed by the NRA, mass shooters, and the Second Amendment written in a time when the founding fathers couldn’t dream of the death machines that would qualify as a firearm in the 21st century. You might worry what this horror movie has to say.
The moment Zoey leaps into attack mode while bellowing, “Breathe bitch,” Escape Room shifts unexpectedly and abruptly from an intriguing battle of wits into another crass gun culture promoting fantasy. Before, she was timid. But now, she is armed and ready to win, by any means necessary. Notably, though she’ll fire the gun to save Ben, it’s he, the white average joe, who is given the weapon for the kill shot on the Game Master. Could it be that the filmmakers thought a white man handling a gun would be more acceptable to their audience than a black woman doing it? Perhaps don’t dwell on that too long, because the movie doesn’t. In a third act that feels like a jarring studio note, what matters is that the gun means Zoey lives to fight another day. Gotta’ set up that sequel.
What remains to be seen is how this sloppy climax will impact the epilogue that teases a sequel. If Ben and Zoey’s flight to Minos’s Manhattan headquarters is to be the next strike for the mysterious and murderous Puzzle Maker, what does that mean for Escape Room 2? Will Zoey’s survival once more depend solely on firepower? If so, I guess that underwhelming climax will involve the petite heroine grappling with an air marshal.
Header Image Source: Sony