Eric’s Review: Escape Room (2019)

Scary DVDs! Woo!

Here’s your first major Horror release of 2019, Escape Room: a tricky, well-paced dungeon crawl of a film, and guess what? It’s pretty good.

★★★ out of ★★★★★
Directed by Adam Robitel

I am a fan of escape rooms, the pop-up entertainment wonder that has sprung up across the country, pitting a group of people, locked in a room (or rooms) and forcing them to find clues out of the puzzle box that they are trapped in, and get out before the time runs out. It was inevitable that a horror film was going to be made of this new form of entertainment.

I don’t yet want to call Escape Rooms a Fad, but give them ten years and we’ll see if this trend will be linked to things like the motorized razor scooter and VR headsets as things “of the era.” I actually think, like the astronomical rise in the popularity of board games, people like the social puzzle that they can solve together. I’ve done five Escape Rooms, and each one was a blast. (3 wins, 2 failures, BTW.)

This is the second movie, called Escape Room to be released. There is a more conventional stalker-ish movie that was released in 2017, which came and went with no fanfare. This, however, is a slickly done modestly priced studio outing. Not a lot of special effects, but there was a ton of cool set design put to this production. Trust me, you will never see real Escape Rooms like this one. Not only is it deadly, but it looks like it cost millions of dollars to build. Your average escape room is a low-budget affair, usually set up in half-vacant shopping malls or defunct Toy-R-Us setups. This escape room appears that it had the backing of Sony, as the movie itself is.

We are introduced to the plot, with a riveting sequence in which one of the primary characters in the film is caught in a room being crushed like the trash compactor in Star Wars. The player is in a frenzied panic, but still manages to piece together a solution as the walls close in for the coup de grace. CRUNCH. It’s a heck of an opening scene.

We then spin back three days, and we get a number of introductions to our characters who are about to run the gauntlet. We have the introverted and brilliant college student Zoe (Taylor Russell), who desperately wants to share her love of scientific theories with anyone, but her though processes are far beyond normal comprehension that she just sounds like she’s babbling nonsense. Jason (Jay Ellis), is the opposite. He’s a power investor, who oozes confidence, charisma and cunning.

Logan Miller plays Ben, a grocery stock-boy who is burned out and not allowed to work the more lucrative job at the front counter of that store. He has been reduced to being a bummed out slacker. All three of them receive mysterious little boxes (ominously similar to a Hellraiser box for my comfort) that eventually promise $10,000 to anyone willing to take on the challenge of the world’s best escape room. (I think they changed the reward from the trailer.)

They eventually arrive at an aging concrete highrise and meet up in the waiting room with Ex-Iraq War Vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), escape room super fanboy Danny (Nik Dodani), and the good-natured trucker Mike (Tyler Labine.) As it turns out the waiting room is the first of many rooms that this group will need to escape from, as Ben, trying to find the restroom breaks off the door handle, leaving an oven dial in its place. Yep, the room is an oven!

In a mild spoiler alert, we slowly learn that each of the players in this deadly game have a usually sad and life defining event in their past, and that each of them will have to face their greatest fears in a test somewhere in this death trap. The movie never forgets that first and foremost this is a movie about being inside a puzzle, and that there are always clues in the rooms for them to discover solutions or keys to get them out of their predicament. As the game moves on, and the players dwindle, the greater question of why this is happening to them slowly is revealed.

If you stop and think too hard about this movie, it shouldn’t work. The whole scenario is preposterous. But the big reveal at the end of the movie that kind of, sort of, manages to explain the ordeal does make sense if you squint and ignore some of the glaring logistical follies. But I found myself forgiving the clunkiness of the overall plot, and embracing the cleverness of the puzzles.

This movie has similarities to a number of other productions. It has a distinct connection to the much bloodier Cube and its maze of death. Robitel directed Insidious: The Final Key, and is, therefore, part of the James Wan/Leigh Whannell family tree and the Saw influence is certainly present. Other movies that this reminded me of: The Running Man, The Most Dangerous Game, The LaPlace’s Demon, and Cabin in the Woods. Our protagonists are pawns, playing somebody else’s game. The question is, of course… who? and why?

I’m afraid neither of those answers are particularly satisfying. I was however satisfied with the acting talent on the screen. I couldn’t shake seeing Woll and not thinking she was Daredevil’s Karen Page, but she apparently has been working out a ton, because her upper body strength is on full display here, and you see her burn injuries from Iraq, and you see a different character. Good job, makeup crew! Tyler Labine’s most prominent role was as the lovelorn hillbilly Dale in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil He plays a similarly appealing teddy bear of a guy in this movie too. He has a knack of being the warm center of a movie.

The breakout for me was young Taylor Russell. She shined through the movie as the center of gravity, even as her shy and quiet demeanor didn’t lend towards particularly flashy displays of grandstanding. Her unassuming intellect pays dividends, and it was refreshing to have a hyper intellectual not be a total misfit, although she is a little awkward, and the movie does give us the full-bore obsessed nerd with Danny. Amy, my viewing partner loved all his lines, as both of us can identify with that level of geeky obsession.

By nature, this is a movie firmly on the railroad tracks. It is going to take you from room to room, each with its own tricks and traps, and each one with unique puzzles to overcome. To extend the metaphor a bit longer, the train manages to stay on its tracks and gets to the station on time. It is not a movie that takes great chances, but it doesn’t risk anything by losing your attention or letting you forget what the plot is trying to do.

The movie is definitely more intense than scary. And, given that, I quite am glad that for a PG-13 movie, it did not revert to applying false scares through shrieking violins and shock cuts. Unfortunately for a movie that’s supposed to be all about smarts, it’s actually not the most clever movie, but it does provide a good adrenaline rush, and for a $9,000,000 movie it has some stunning set designs. (The upside-down room puzzle is amazing.)

Though I think the characters were a bit underwritten, the actors were all talented enough to give them some depth of character so that we had something a little bit more than archetypal cardboard cutouts. I did like that they, for the most part, stuck together and did not fall apart at the seams under stress, and therefor Escape Room passes my important rule #1. I cared about our team of protagonists. I wanted them all to get out. Like a movie franchise I loathe, Final Destination, the movie premise, should it prove successful at the Box Office, is ripe for sequels.

Escape Room is Rated PG-13 for adventurous peril, and dastardly tricks. It is in wide release in US Theaters. If you missed our earlier trailer post, here it is again, but I will warn you I think it’s a bit spoiler-ish:

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