‘Escape Room’ is high-concept and not half bad
In retrospect, it’s actually kind of surprising that there hasn’t been an escape room-themed horror movie until now. The popular interactive mystery games are kind of mini films. There’s a built-in set, stakes, opportunities for conflict and teamwork and a logical start and finish. It’s certainly a more obvious fit for a movie than a board game or theme park ride.
So, from the imaginations of “Fast & Furious” producer Neal H. Moritz and “Insidious: The Last Key” director Adam Robitel comes “Escape Room,” where the characters are as random as an audience-chosen improv group (Investment banker! Soldier! Miner! Smart teen! Grocer!), the rooms look like discarded Nine Inch Nails music video sets (not exactly a criticism), the stakes are $10,000 or death, which seem far too low and too high, and everyone agrees that Petula Clark’s “Downtown” is a bad song (which is both incorrect and a strange, rude hill to die on).
As if the film is concerned that the audience will lose interest immediately, “Escape Room” starts at the end, as a lone man, Ben (Logan Miller), desperately tries to figure out the clues in a room that is quickly closing in on itself, “Star Wars” trash-compactor-style. It’s certainly a jolt of energy up front, but right as things are looking really bleak for Ben, it cuts to “three days earlier.” It’s cheap and a little insulting to have to reassure the audience that there is some exciting and harrowing stuff to come as long as they get through all the boring introductory stuff. At least it doesn’t resort to the old record-scratch, freeze-frame, “you’re probably wondering how I got here” standby.
The thing is, “Escape Room” isn’t actually all that bad, just kind of silly, but it takes a moment to readjust your expectations after that condescending beginning and a very phoned-in introduction to the unlucky six Chicago strangers who all receive a mysterious box and decide, what the heck, let’s check out this escape room. There’s the skittish but brilliant college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), the ruthless finance guy Jason (Jay Ellis), the veteran who hates heat, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the regular joe, Mike (Tyler Labine) and the escape room obsessive who honestly never does all that much to help, Danny (Nik Dodani).
Curiously no one seems all that concerned about the odd premise that this team activity could have a single winner at all, or perhaps they think they’ll all win $10,000. I guess it becomes clearer when people start dying in the rooms.
And, boy, are they put through the wringer. They have to brave extreme heat, extreme cold, poison, drugs, rising tensions and body counts while trying to figure out how to get out of each puzzle room, a few of which are pretty interesting. It’s like a “Final Destination” spinoff where each character’s past trauma haunts them. Mercifully, all the carnage is kept to tolerable PG-13 levels.
The filmmakers haven’t gone so far as to put you in the game, too. A lot of it is watching all the characters find keys and have their own revelations, so by the time you get to the fifth room, it’s understandable if interest is starting to wane a bit even with the addition of a link between the six people.
The third act really kind of blows it though and the movie essentially ends with a shrug and the possibility for a sequel. You could do worse in January. And anyone already interested in the idea of an escape room that tries to kill you probably isn’t expecting all that much out of this anyway.
“Escape Room,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language.” Running time: 100 minutes. Two stars out of four.