Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director: Adam Robitel
Writer: Bragi Schut, Maria Melnik
Producer: Neal H. Moritz, Ori Marmur
Stars: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis, Yorick van Wageningen
Six strangers with a secret connection in common frantically fight to escape a building whose rooms are intricate traps.
If you thought Jigsaw’s elaborate death traps broke believability for what was logistically improbable and financially impractical, wait until you see the craziness “Escape Room” cooks up.
Usually in a horror movie, solving an intricate puzzle box summons a leather-clad hell priest to put hooks in your flesh. For introverted college student Zoey, self-centered stockbroker Jason, and unkempt screw-up Ben, it unlocks an invitation to Minos, the most immersive escape room experience this side of John Kramer’s grime-stained warehouse.
The number of stock stereotypes increases to an even half-dozen with the introductions of geeky gamer Danny, military veteran Amanda, and bearded truck driver Mike. This second trio doesn’t benefit from backstory exposition like Zoey, Jason, and Ben do. That awards Danny, Amanda, and Mike additional roles as potential moles, or at least as red herrings until the secret connection between participants (there always is one, isn’t there?) finally comes out in the open.
With the ethnically, socially, and gender diverse sextet assembled, the game wastes no time getting underway. Summarizing what happens next would only be a spoiler for someone who has never seen “Cube,” “Fermat’s Room,” or any thriller with a similar puzzle-based setup before.
When the waiting room suddenly turns into an unbearably blazing oven, the players deduce that the mysterious Minos Company may be a conspiratorial cabal trying to kill them. Those suspicions are confirmed as the riddles unlocking exits reveal increasingly deadly rooms seemingly designed by Cesar Romero’s Joker and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. Unstable ice over freezing water, a gradually falling floor above a bottomless elevator shaft, and collapsing walls modeled after the Death Star’s trash compactor are just some of the devious traps the sixsome has to outthink to escape the building alive.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it were revealed that Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik’s screenplay started out as a “Saw” sequel spec script. In a world where Lionsgate was still releasing annualized entries in their venerable ‘torture porn’ franchise, “Escape Room” might seem like a mere imitator for employing a nearly identical concept while following a familiar formula.
Yet “Escape Room” instead arrives at a time when that space of cinema has a void in need of filling. And with its PG-13 rating replacing gratuitous gore with stylized setpieces, “Escape Room” plays out more palatably as a two-bite cupcake of a thriller ideal for a pleasing, if fleeting, sugar rush.
“Escape Room” earns its originality from Edward Thomas’ production design, Cecelia van Straaten and Mark Walker’s art direction, and Tracy Perkins’ set decoration. Spatial realism may go through the glass on its way out the window. But several creatively cool setups for settings like an upside-down billiards bar, snowed-in cabin, and optical illusion living room pave over implausibility with terrifically distinct visuals.
Eye candy becomes essential to immersion since individual escape rooms prevent viewers from playing along. You’ll figure out a “you’ll go down in history” clue well before players do, if you haven’t already from reading it here. Other than that, you can’t solve many mysteries because the movie doesn’t always divulge necessary details. More often than not, it’s a passive experience of waiting for characters to physically retrieve items or puzzle things out through trial and error actions we can’t take part in.
Suspense instead comes from watching these people face constant peril. Accordingly, any nail-biting becomes proportionate to how you feel about the characters personally. Some are shallowly developed while at least one is intentionally designed to be unlikable. Individual mileage thus varies regarding how vicariously any viewer can live through everyone.
The film stubs its toe at the opening credits with an unnecessary flash-forward meant to start with a scare. It only deflates tension when that scene reappears chronologically 80 minutes later. “Escape Room” mangles its other bookend by ending five minutes too late with an epilogue that should have been saved to open a sequel.
But starting at the top with director Adam Robitel and continuing down through all six key actors, everyone turns in respectable work meant to manufacture a mainstream movie whose middle generally earns B grades for entertainment. If “Escape Room” ends up as the heir apparent to “Saw,” it’s a suitable replacement for tapping that vein of ticking bomb thrills. Just don’t think about the lack of logic too hard. Preferably, don’t think about it at all.
Review Score: 60