Film Review – Escape Room
Escape rooms are a lot of fun. You and your friends are placed inside of a room – usually decorated with a specific theme – and try to solve a number of puzzles or retrieve a key that will eventually help you to “escape” within a specific time frame (usually an hour). Escape rooms promote critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. I’ve done a good handful of them, and the best ones immerse you in the theme or story as though you were in a real-life adventure. It would only make sense that the movie industry would try to capitalize off of this, and thus Escape Room (2019) has come to be.
Directed by Adam Robitel and co-written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, Escape Room borrows the same basic idea of the game, but amps up the stakes by going for a horror approach. Here, when time is up, the contestants’ lives are put in jeopardy. The premise is a carbon copy of what goes on in the Saw (2004) franchise, although this one stays relatively subdued – you’re not going to get any “torture porn/body horror” type of bloodshed.
The story is a half-baked concoction of underdeveloped characters stuck in a situation that is all too familiar. We have six strangers, all of whom come right out of the “generic character” handbook. Their traits and personalities are so thin that they’re more archetypes than actual people. Let’s run down the list: there’s the College Introvert (Taylor Russell), the Bearded Truck Driver (Tyler Labine), the Wounded Soldier (Deborah Ann Woll), the Outcast (Logan Miller), the Nerd (Nik Dodani), and the Hotshot Wall Street Stock Broker (Jay Ellis). All six have been mysteriously invited to participate in a new escape room by an unknown company with a cash reward as an incentive.
Why would anyone want to take part in this? It’s strange that a group of people would jump into this invitation given that they have no idea what kind of company would go out of their way to reach out to them. I’ve gotten plenty of emails from random strangers from different countries asking me to give them my information in exchange for money, but that doesn’t mean I actually follow through with it! Clearly, these characters are way too gullible (and frankly dumb) to have any kind of reasonable common sense.
Just as the characters meet up and make their introductions, they get immediately thrown into the game. It’s at this part where things actually get interesting. The production design (Edward Thomas), art direction (Mark Walker), and set decoration (Tracy Perkins) does a commendable job of making each room distinctive of one another. The group faces a number of rooms one right after the other, each one packed with its own booby traps and clues on how to get out. The way each is set up is impressive. They have to traverse their way through an office waiting room, a snow room, a pool hall flipped upside down, and a hospital room, amongst others. Each one gets progressively more bizarre the further they advance. I especially liked the pool hall room, where everything is reserved so it seems that the characters are walking on the ceiling. Marc Spicer’s cinematography plays around with the perspective, seeing the characters climbing up the walls but making it look as though they are crawling on the ground (imagine the rotating hallway in Inception or Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding).
This is the kind of stuff that can make for a pretty fun flick, and in some ways Escape Room does that. But it doesn’t go far enough with the ludicrous nature of the story. Instead, it throws together some weak dramatic backstories to the characters that doesn’t reveal all that much about them. This information is shown in flashbacks, done so quickly that it works more as time filler than character nuance. Each member of the group has some dark past or secret that they would rather not share. The game forces them to, but for what purpose? What exactly will be accomplished by making them face their past and confront traumatic experiences surrounded by people they don’t know? And what good will it do if the game aims for them to perish anyway?
These are the kinds of questions Escape Room fails to address, even though the plot hinders on them. To make matters worse, not only do the questions go unanswered, but the narrative introduces a set of even bigger questions with the sole purpose of setting up a sequel. In a way, the film itself is its own game room – it sets up a trap that ensnares us for a length of time, and when we think we’ve made it out it blindsides us with the possibility of more to come. This is a rabbit hole I’m not so sure I want to go down.