Tempting as it may be to call Escape Room a parable for existence in 2019, the truth is we’ve already got the premise beat. Anyone who participates in social media already knows what it’s like to be trapped inside a series of sadistic torture chambers, forced to perform flawlessly for an audience of strangers. The only slightly psychological thriller, instead, has a more lucrative endgame in mind: mining our postholiday malaise, with the idea that months of oppressive mirth have primed us for some primo death scenes.
Director Adam Robitel is hopping over from the cash-cow Insidious series — he helmed the fourth and most recent film, The Last Key — and he could have the makings of a new low-stakes franchise on his hands, given the malleable nature of the concept. Six seemingly random people, all experiencing varying levels of success and sorrow, receive a puzzle box in the mail. Solving it provides each with an invitation to participate in a mysterious new escape room, with the promise of a $10,000 cash prize to whomever can get out.
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First conceived in Asia but now popular the world over, these elaborately designed venues are rigged with puzzles you must solve to emancipate yourself, tactile challenges popular with amateur sleuths and employers who see it as “team-building.” Escape Room’s team is built, with minimal ceremony, in an unremarkable office waiting area.
The enthusiastic power user (Nik Dodani), sharp math student (Taylor Russell, Netflix’s Lost in Space), and cocky stock trader (Jay Ellis of Insecure) seem well-suited to working with logic and numbers. The other trio — a tough combat vet (True Blood’s Deborah Ann Woll), a gregarious trucker (Tyler Labine), and a boozehound grocery clerk (Logan Miller) — does not. While the six-pack feels each other out and squabbles over strategy, the temperature starts to rise well above comfort in the room — the first of many suggestions that something’s not quite right. It still takes the crew close to an hour to conclude that this escape room, while boasting outstanding production value, is absolutely trying to murder them.
The anything-goes, amusement park nature of escape room design, coupled with the fact that the open-ended premise allows for easy retroactive character-building, means there’s a lot of meat on this bone. Robitel, working off a script from TV vets Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik, manages to shade in the connective tissue around the characters through revealing flashbacks.
But honestly it’s more fun to root for the booby traps to win.
Human convection ovens, Death Star-style trash compactors, and a particularly tense sequence involving a frozen pond are a just a few of the bugaboos rolled out to get the job done. A PG-13 rating, however, means that all this craftsmanship is relatively bloodless.
While it fancies itself a stylish hybrid of Saw and The Game, Escape Room is much more evocative of the 1997 low-budget cult hit Cube, a much gorier and far less stylish variation on the same theme. Really, the producers can and should be pursuing the proven Final Destination model — increasingly elaborate and creative deaths, with no tangible justification (and none needed), inflicted upon a down-to-clown cast that can be swept up and replaced for the sequel(s). The setup may seem recyclable, but really it’s disposable.
Directed by Adam Robitel. With Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Taylor Russell, Jay Ellis, and Nik Dodani. Distributed by Screen Gems.
Run time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parents' guide: PG-13 (terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material, and language)