ESCAPE ROOM (2019)
Review by Darren Gaskell
*** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS ***
After receiving a mysterious package which turns out to be an invitation to participate in an escape room – well, if it was in invitation to anything else the name of the movie would probably be different – six strangers show up to solve the puzzles within and get their hands on a $10,000 prize. At first, escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani) is excited at how immersive the experience is but it soon becomes clear that the price of failure isn’t just missing out on the ten grand, it’s also death…
After a pre-title sequence showing a young guy not having the best time as he struggles to work out a numeric code as the walls close in on him, we’re straight into a series of scenes introducing our players and it isn’t too long before they’re gathered together in a waiting room, ready for the game to begin. In addition to Danny, there’s science nerd Zoey (Taylor Russell), stockbroker Jason (Jay Ellis), truck driver and ex-miner Mike (Tyler Labine), war veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) and Ben, who works in the stock room of a grocery store and who was the one looking like he was about to get a lot thinner (sorry, Star Wars) in the cold open. This also means that Ben is unlikely to die first, especially as the waiting room is revealed to be an escape room itself – who’d a thunk it?
The initial interactions between the characters are well played, friendly but a little standoffish in the way that strangers would be and when the stakes are raised in the first room (find a way out or get cooked steadily as the temperature increases) the arguments and snappy comments are believable without having to resort to five minutes of increasingly irritating shouting. Of course, escaping the first room leads to another room from which our group has to escape, which leads to another room, and so on and so on.
The rooms are also well-designed, expensive affairs including an upside-down bar/pool room and a snowscape including trees and an iced-over lake complete with its own extremely deep fishing hole. Now, maybe at some point in this you may be thinking “How have they managed to construct all of this in an office block?” and it’s a valid question.
Okay, put it this way. Some movies require more suspension of disbelief than others and once Escape Room really gets moving then you’ll be called upon to suspend that disbelief quite a bit. Even within its own fairly wacky set of rules this movie pushes plausibility to its limit but in that respect it’s similar to the Saw movies and their elaborate set-ups.
In terms of violence, Escape Room is far less gory than even the weakest entry in the Saw franchise. Here, the deaths are largely bloodless affairs and given the movie seems to be courting the multiplex crowds then that’s not a particularly bad decision. To be honest, there’s no real reason to spray the blood and guts around at it would have been at odds with the general tone of the piece.
That’s not to say the demise of certain characters – despite their watered down, PG-13 flavour – isn’t effective. There’s certainly one member of the group who is pretty kick-ass from the off, so obviously they’re going to die and although it’s entirely expected it’s also the most powerful moment in the movie – much more so than the surprise “death” later on than turns out to be anything but. In fact, the focus of that opening 15/20 minutes gives too many signposts as to who the final players are going to be and undercuts any suspense there might have been when those characters are put in danger.
Still, the puzzles themselves are quite fun, weaving in traumatic experiences from the pasts of our team so what might have been a tedious set of flashbacks at least drives the proceedings along in some way. Huge deductive leaps in reasoning and sudden moments of unconvincing genius are avoided and it does feel like our protagonists are edging their way to the various solutions in an organic and fairly credible way.
And then we get to the final third of the movie, which spins off into a somewhat different orbit as it throws in up close and personal murder (of both the accidental and self-defence type, still relatively bloodless), hallucinogenic drugs and the reveal of exactly what motive is behind the construction of this particular escape room, a motive which is at once both ridiculous and disappointingly unoriginal at the same time. However, that’s not quite the end of it as the possible continuation of the story is offered up as a coda and then…well, the concept dials up its bonkers level to the max as one final, eye-rolling twist is chucked in. Roll credits.
Escape Room is no classic but it’s a diverting enough 100 minutes at the flicks. The performances are pleasing, particularly the excellent Russell – who strikes a blow for science nerds everywhere – and Woll, who, let’s face it, is usually pretty good in everything. It’s doesn’t have the visceral punch or the pervading sense of doom of something like Vincenzo Natali’s Cube but it’s a perfectly serviceable piece of entertainment. Just don’t try to think about it too hard afterwards.