Ideal for a lazy Friday night, Escape Room should entertain those looking for something simultaneously well-made and intensely silly.
A studio movie tackling the latest popular experiential trend, leaning into its claustrophobic potential with a horror inflection, feels completely inevitable. Even so, Escape Room, from director Adam Robitel (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension, Insidious: The Last Key), feels like its retreading overly familiar ground from the word go. The Saw series is an obvious influence, with other genre works like The Belko Experiment and vastly superior The Cabin in the Woods also being referred to throughout. Escape Room skips on the gore and grit of its predecessors, with the flimsiest of flimsy endings. Nonetheless, for all its cheap thrills and clichés, there’s still a dumb sort of fun to be had here.
The set-up sees six strangers brought together to test out the newest escape room run by shady corporation Minos, under the guise that one of them stands the chance of winning $10,000. These characters are all thinly drawn enough that you can latch onto any one of them at whim – for example Mike, played by the likeable Tyler Labine of Tucker & Dale vs Evil, is able to endear with a few lines of affable naivety. You also have the nerdy obsessive, the driven businessman and the slacker dropout, but at least the female characters offer a more refreshing outlook – it’s rare to see women war veterans represented in popular cinema, and Deborah Ann Woll does a decent job with what she’s given. This is not a film that really cares about character or performance though, nor is it one you would expect to.
Once all the pieces are in place, the games begin, our players moving from room to room finding clues and solving puzzles whilst trying to avoid the immediate threat of grisly death. At times the film flirts with being semi-clever, a particular device or riddle offering the chance for the audience to ponder along with the characters, before it slips firmly back into schlocky territory. Regardless, the production design is certainly something to be commended, one of the rooms an impressive Americana-infused pool bar that has to be navigated from the ceiling (i.e. it’s upside down). Robitel knows how to use his camera efficiently to capture these spaces fully, sometimes allowing for the odd formalist technique to pique interest. One such sequence goes all out hallucinogenic, briefly allowing the movie to break free of its otherwise conventional execution.
This brings us to the ending. Escape Room is one of those thrillers that has clearly never figured out how its going to wrap things up, even during production. The script doesn’t have satisfying answers for the questions it raises, going down a well-worn path that relies on some shadowy grand conspiracy and Hunger Games lite psychology to explain away why these rooms have been created in the first place. This could have been fine enough if the filmmakers left it a bit more ambiguous, opting to refuse us any definitive answers if they’re going to be this bland and unsatisfying. Instead, they plough on with a final 10 minutes that is laughably bad; what we eventually get is something that feels totally tacked on, probably as a result of endless test screenings, and baits a sequel so hard that you actively hope one doesn’t get made. All this serves to put a dampener on Escape Room – a movie that, despite being entertaining for most of its runtime, will probably be forgotten within the space of a few weeks.
Escape Room (2019), directed by Adam Robitel, is distributed in the UK by Columbia Pictures, certificate 15.