Movie Review: Escape Room.
This trap filled thriller borrows from other famous films but returns everything in good condition.
In the middle of awards season, a film like Escape Room is exactly what the doctor ordered. It is slick, fun, and easy to watch. Sure, it’s populated by cliched characters and an unsubtle plot, but it does what it intends to do well. The traps are devious and engaging, the visuals are inventive and stylish, and its premise perfectly (and shamelessly) sets it up for a gaggle of sequels. With many films in the trap genre played out, it shows itself to be a worthy successor that entertains.
Escape Room (2018)
Six individuals with tragic histories are given coded invitations to the world’s most exclusive Escape Room puzzle game. Whisked away to a towering high-rise, they discover that the puzzles seem tailored to them. Eerily so. As they plunge deeper into the facility’s increasingly elaborate traps and puzzles, they soon realize that the people behind Escape Room are playing a deadly game, a game in which only one of the six is expected to survive.
SAW® Destination™ Cubed©.
Escape Room wears its hand-me-down clothes with pride. Clearly aware that it is the new kid in town in a well established genre, it makes nods early on to other famous franchises, while shamelessly borrowing elements from them. After watching the trailer, I thought the film looked like a PG-13 version of a SAW style horror, with Final Destination characters, cribbing puzzles from the grandfather of the genre, Cube. That winds up being a dead-on summary of Escape Room. What excuses all of this pilfering is that the film manages to carve out its own stylistic identity and deliver entertaining traps of its own.
Better Puzzled by Questions than Riddled by Bullets.
Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key, The Taking of Deborah Logan) creates a stylish visual aesthetic that keeps the eye busy. Each trap room is littered with Americana and potential clues, both for the audience and the characters. They’re meticulously crowded, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle. As the film clearly has aspirations of becoming a series, I’d be fascinated to see how many of those clues are meant for viewers. I noticed quite a few Latin phrases scattered around that didn’t wind up being used by our protagonists, but may be Easter eggs for audiences.
The puzzles themselves are satisfying. Each feels devious and dangerous, yet not unbeatable. One gripe I have of the genre is that the traps can be unfair: either they’re unwinnable or they require secret/specialized knowledge. Unfair traps, like many of the later SAW films, have little emotional value. If I see you stacking the deck, I’m not invested in the game. Special knowledge traps alienate the viewers unlikely to possess the requisite skills, and become script speed-bumps. A few of these latter hiccups occur, but Escape Room winds up being smart about them. The characters are established with different specialties, and we get just enough backstory to see where their skills are going to come in handy.
The characters in Escape Room are a mixed bag. They’re written as bald clichés: from the shy math nerd to the geeky gamer guy, the folksy trucker to the ruthless stockbroker. It is a script-writing crutch, and the film seems smart enough to realize it. After a flashforward, we get a montage of our main characters solving the mini-puzzle that gets them into the contest. It provides enough of a survey to show us what they possess as skills, and to hint at the tragedies that drive them. Their backstories are the only things that aren’t stock characterizations, and luckily the film makes them memorable.
It also helps that a few notable performances elevate the thin characters. Taylor Russell (Lost in Space) is our main hero, and she becomes a strong “last girl” worth rooting for. I didn’t love that she goes from stereotypical nerd to badass, but at least she pulls off badass with style. Logan Miller is obviously the slacker/loser you are meant to dislike until his epiphany, and he makes hay with a thankless role. The strongest character also has the strongest performance, as Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) does a good job selling us on her PTSD haunted veteran, while also displaying great physicality. Overall, the cast does a fine job, and it mostly overcomes some weak writing.
Leave ‘Em Wanting More.
I really enjoyed my time with Escape Room, but I knew exactly what I was getting. This film is for fans of the genre, and it has the caveat that at PG-13 it is not going to have the same bloody payout as a SAW or a Cube. It differentiates itself with a strong visual style and a reliance on cleverness instead of bloodletting. It’s got warts, but it recognizes where it is weakest and compensates. By the time it was nearly over, I already knew I wanted a sequel…Then the film wastes 20 minutes explicitly selling a sequel.
Of all of the film’s weaknesses, this was the only one I loathed. There was a solid twist that set up a sequel, but the film went on and on afterwards setting up the next film anyway. It was presumptuous and in poor taste. If the film you made was good, it’s gonna get a sequel. I think it warrants one, and god knows Hollywood loves making them. But I’m actually less enthusiastic about one now because you shamelessly stole 15 minutes of my time pitching it. Leave ’em wanting more, Escape Room.