Escape Room is fun, but doesn't reach its potential
Escape Room opens strong, with a single player trapped in what appears to be a classic study, complete with leather-bound books, ladders with which to access them, and an aura which likely smells of rich mahogany (had to). There’s a sliding puzzle on the wall which requires him to enter a certain sequence of mystery numbers, and as soon as he takes a stab at it, the walls start closing in like the trash compactor in Star Wars. It’s a claustrophobe’s nightmare, and director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) captures it with such clarity that it’s hard not to feel as cramped as the poor young man in the center of it all. It’s a breathless, exciting introduction which makes a strong promise for the quality of the subsequent film. Unfortunately, the promise isn’t met. This is where it peaks.
From here we are introduced to a handful of players. There’s Zoey (Taylor Russell), the near-savant loner with a mysterious past. There’s our friend from the opening, Ben (Logan Miller), a young adult burnout with a mysterious past. We also meet Jason (Jay Ellis), a businessy businessman with a mysterious past. We get a few short scenes of each of their current circumstances, and before long they all receive anonymous invitations to compete for ten grand in the world’s most immersive escape game.
When they arrive, we meet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), the no-nonsense former soldier with a mysterious past, Mike (Tyler Labine), the friendly truck driver with a mysterious past, and Danny (Nik Dodani) the nerdy escape room enthusiast with a mysterious past.
Shortly after the game begins it becomes clear that the game is no mere novelty. The puzzle rooms are filled with deadly traps, and these six participants are going to have to work together in order to escape with their lives.
Having done an escape room in the past, I can attest to how much fun they are, and to how impressive the in-game storytelling can be. Most rooms have a theme, and it helps to embrace the theme in order to escape. With Escape Room, the fun also comes from the puzzle itself. It’s exciting to watch the solutions to each puzzle unfold as the bodies pile up, just as it’s a blast to try and beat the characters to the punch. Granted, a few of the puzzles are unsolvable from an outsider’s perspective, but the lack of play-along information is far from frustrating.
What is frustrating is the cast of characters. Few have any density to speak of, and most aren’t that much fun to be around. The performers all do great work delivering dialogue which ranges from meh to embarrassing, but there just isn’t enough there to give me a reason to care about any single one of them. As such, the deaths carry little weight (despite being cleverly staged), and the victories smattered throughout are meaningless. This, however, is to be expected with these sort of things, and I quickly made peace with the fact that this film would passable, albeit filled to bursting with missed opportunities.
The big winner here is Robitel himself, who directs the film with a consistent energy that captures the tension without being betrayed by the inherent artifice of the concept (a few of the rooms stretch believability in function, but none to a fault). In fact, with each new room that our protagonists enter, a different visual style is employed. One takes the form of a rickety old cabin, another a freezing cold winter landscape. A particular highlight is a room which appears to be a pool hall...which has been inverted. There’s even a sequence that is so is so trippy that an epilepsy warning was issued prior to the film. It turned my stomach in a good way.
Escape Room is exactly the movie I expected, as it ticks all the requisite boxes for a January horror film. Its biggest sin is that it really could have been so much more. Even so, you can’t go wrong with seeing this on opening night. It’ll work best with a rambunctious crowd. Despite being a mediocre film overall, I will absolutely be there when the inevitable, heavily-baited sequel comes along.
Escape Room opens today in Philly theaters.