★★★ out of ★★★★★
Once more into the maze! It’s still full of tricks, traps, misdirection, and impossible challenges. As it was the last time, the killer escape rooms are hugely imaginative, even if the overriding plot isn’t. It’s an entertaining low-calorie thrill ride that is as entertaining and exciting as a roller coaster, but it has about as much nuance and character development as an carnie ride as well.
Directed by Adam Robitel
So, how does Blumhouse follow up on the surprising success (Box office of $57 Million) of 2019’s Escape Room? I rather enjoyed the first film, as light escapist fare (pun intended), and was looking forward to this one. In short, I think this film succeeds and suffers by similar measures as the first one. Neither film brought much in the way of dramatic surprise, but they both delivered fun fare that allows the audience to play along.
When we last saw our intrepid survivors, Zoey (Taylor Russell) and Ben (Logan Miller), they had just turned the table on their evil taskmasters, the Minos corporation (cleverly named after the Cretian minotaur maze) who had captured them and their unfortunate fellow victims in a reductive trial of devious puzzle rooms that would kill those who failed to figure out the puzzles. The Minos Corporation had something of an internet betting ring about the fates of the prisoners. Ben and Zoey managed to kill their game master, but the corporation is still out there, and nobody believes their stories, as Minos has covered their tracks well.
Zoey and Ben remain close, confiding in each other and their therapists in trying to recover from their trauma, they are determined to uncover, undermine, and destroy Minos. But evil corporations are clever and not to be underestimated. Zoey and Ben head to New York to blow the cover on Minos, but not surprisingly they find themselves yet again, trapped. The two are lured into a subway train, and when their train car decouples it becomes obvious: it’s a trap! (queue Admiral Ackbar)
With them are four others (and remarkably ONLY four others) all of whom it turns out survived their own version of the Escape Room challenge. This time they fully understand their situation from the jump, so the confusion of the circumstance has been eliminated. As before, the “players” are subjected to a series of visual, numerical, and word puzzles each one of them is associated with a countdown timer or even multiple countdown timers. And naturally, you do not want to be caught out in the open when the timer goes off.
This has the feel of a big studio production and is built to be a crowd-pleaser. It is intense and action-packed, and the traps are deadly without being particularly violent or gory… this is a PG-13 gateway film all the way. Thankfully, it does not fall for the trap (if you forgive the pun) that befalls a lot of PG-13 horror films of having cheap jump scares. Production values for the visual effects and set designs are real standouts, and the fact that they are stage sets actually plays in the favor of the premise.
The movie does a very good job of revealing some clues and red herrings to sort through with the characters, and for the most part, they behave in an intelligent manner befitting of escape room survivors. You start to solve the puzzles with them, and there is real power to that. I can appreciate that these escape rooms are fantastically elaborate while remaining conceptually solid. Tricky, but not incomprehensible. I particularly enjoyed a trap with acid as the killer device. As such, the film receives high marks for the look, feel, and ingenuity of the traps themselves. This is central to the premise of the movie, and since this part works, this is likely to really satisfy those who want a killer Rube Goldberg mousetrap. This is exactly what my viewing partner Amy really wanted, and she LOVED this movie.
What is less successful is that it feels a bit like empty calories. It is a bit of a railroad of a plot. Even the injection of a familiar face in the third act doesn’t deliver a very substantial plot. We don’t get any deeper insights into the motives of the Minos Corporation, and there is a bit of a frustrating friend-zone relationship between our two leads. And as creative and fun as the traps are, there is a bit of predictability in the overall arc of the story.
Character development is not the strong suit of these films, but our two leads here are wholesomely charismatic. Most of the rest of the cast are archetypes who have their moments armed with a primary character trait (high pain threshold, redemption through faith, chronic tardiness) but they are largely elevated cannon fodder. You don’t get any asshole antagonist types in this outing, which is refreshing, though we do get a somewhat spoiler character thrown into the mix, there is nobody who you are actively rooting against. Rooting against an out-of-sight-out-of-mind evil overlord doesn’t add much to the proceedings.
When a film like Escape Room breaks out, it shouts out for franchising. Formula Popcorn fare crowd-pleasers almost always end up in sequels, whether it makes sense to or not. The better franchises find a way to keep a recurring thread through the sequels (A Quiet Place, The Purge, Paranormal Activities) while those that just decide to rinse and repeat with minimal connective tissue save for a charismatic villain (Friday the 13th).
In propelling the franchise forward, the Escape Room: TOC borrowed a page from reality TV competition shows. When the producers want to jump-start the ratings of Amazing Race or Survivor, what do you do? Bring back your old familiar favorite faces! You’ll watch this again, right? Like The Hunger Games, though, these are unwilling champions forced to run the gauntlet yet again.
Circumstantially, it makes sense in Escape Room because when your recurring characters are the protagonists and the villain is faceless, you have to find a way to put them back in the exact same peril again as the unwitting pawns of a larger sinister game. I would have liked a Cabin In the Woods style betting room, full of wicked Minos offline bettors to emphasize the crass capital of the “Tournament”. Does this plot device work? Yes. Does it feel a bit forced? Yes. Could it have been elaborated on more? Absolutely yes.
I would rank the first film slightly higher than this one, but as back-to-back offerings, they are pretty consistent. However, we’ll see if this conceit can continue to hold. Other franchises which hang on to their protagonists a little too long end up feeling contrived. Ask yourself whether you really want to see Ripley again in an Alien movie. This franchise could certainly continue on, like Saw or Hostel, by putting whole groups of strangers into peril with the same operating parameters, and though that can work the procedure can feel a bit mechanical, which might actually suit this franchise. Escape Room really is a Swiss watch mechanical exercise at its heart if the watch, in the end, shoots you full of neurotoxins or explodes after an hour is up.
Exciting? Sure! Entertaining too! Intellectually stimulating? Not so much. Pass the popcorn.
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is PG-13 and is now in wide release throughout the USA.