January's film slate kicks off in earnest with a cheesy high-concept horror flick that manages to overcome its stock characters to deliver some inventive puzzle-box thrills.
It’s surprising that it’s taken this long for a film based on the concept of escape rooms to be made by a mainstream studio. Escape rooms have been one of the longer lasting phenomena of the incredibly fickle 2010s – interactive game rooms where you and a few friends are trapped in a room and must solve riddles and puzzles to escape. While it’s not uncommon for Hollywood to wait on a trend, it’s unbelievable that it took Sony until the last year of the decade before they made a movie based off an escape room gimmick. Even more unbelievably, director Adam Robitel and writers Bragi F Schut and Maria Melnik manage to turn a movie based on a type of game most commonly used in corporate team building exercises into an enjoyable if unambitious thriller.
Escape Room’s plot is straightforward: over the Thanksgiving weekend, six strangers receive a puzzle box that contains a voucher for entry to an escape room run by the mysterious “Minos Inc.” and a promise that if they make it through the escape room, they will receive $10,000. Upon entering the building, they realize that while the puzzles in Minos operate like other escape rooms (), the rooms are rigged so that they will kill the players if they don’t escape in time. Even more disturbing, the rooms contain references to the victims’ past.
Naturally, Escape Room’s appeal lies in the titular game, and it’s clear that the filmmakers put in a lot of effort into creating memorable set pieces. The characters have to go through seven unique rooms, each with their own theme, method of killing, and puzzles required to escape. The first room is arguably the most creative: a waiting room that slowly transforms into an oven. Other memorable rooms are an upside-down bar with an unstable floor and a black and white room that is literally psychedelic. The inventive and visually striking nature of the rooms themselves makes Escape Room as dependent on art director Mark Welker as it is on Robitel.
That isn’t to say that Robitel doesn’t deserve credit for making the set pieces so enjoyable. The fun of an actual escape room is the participant’s ability to interact with the room as well as them figuring out the puzzle on their own. This is obviously not possible in a film, and Robitel does a great job keeping the action scenes engaging. The editing is tight and energetic, with the tension building as the room gets more and more deadly and will keep you wondering which characters will escape. Credit also needs to go to Schut and Melnik for making puzzles that aren’t too easy to piece together (with one painfully obvious exception – you’ll know it when you see it).
While the set pieces in Escape Room are thrilling and complex, the characters are not. Each of the mains are stock characters: the shy nerdy girl, Zoey (Taylor Russell); the sullen alcoholic loser, Ben (Logan Miller); the selfish and aggressive stockbroker, Jason (Jay Ellis); the heroic veteran, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); the affable redneck, Mark (Tyler Labine); and the obnoxious gamer geek, Danny (Nik Dodani). While one-note characters are expected in a “pick-em-off” movie, even the leads (Zoey, Ben, and Jason) are particularly bland, the viewer being able to spot each of their inevitable conflicts and arcs within the first second of each of their introductory scenes.
As expected for a film with one-note characters, the acting isn’t much more than serviceable. Of the main three, Miller is the best, giving Ben a bit more nuance than the rest of the cast, which was necessary for his heroic arc. Russell does a great job portraying Zoey as both the unassertive nerd at the start of the movie and the badass heroine the film needed her to become, but the shift is rather abrupt. The rest of the cast doesn’t do much to rise above the stereotypes. Of the other four cast members, only Labine is particularly memorable, and that’s just because he’s playing an older version of his character from Tucker and Dale Versus Evil.
The underwhelming performance of the cast is mostly the fault of the directing and writing. Not only are the characters one-note, Robitel doesn’t seem to know how to handle the actors as an ensemble. Normally a script full of such a diverse cast of charters would have them pitting themselves against each other as well as against the dangers of the room. Unfortunately, except for shooting a few barbs and a couple of accusations, the characters mostly co-operate with each other until near the climax. It’s a missed opportunity because if the characters were given more depth, it would have elevated Escape Room from your typical high-concept thriller.
The ending is another big missed opportunity – throughout the film, both the characters and the audience are kept in the dark about Minos Inc.’s true purpose, and that of the titular escape room. When you discover its purpose, you’ll wish they had kept it a secret. The ending and explanation may not have been so bad in and of itself, but the filmmakers’ obvious desire for franchise potential makes for a denouement that’s particularly uninviting.
Despite its weak characters and silly ending, Escape Room delivers what it promises in thrilling sequences in elaborate death traps. And in a way, its weaknesses work: after all, real escape rooms have silly plotlines and stock characters, why shouldn’t a movie about an escape room have the same?
Escape Room locks audiences into theaters Friday, January 4.