It is January, my dudes, and with the changing of the year comes a bevy of trashy movies that Hollywood has decided to dump in our laps, hoping to offer some sort of counterprogramming to the holiday releases you’ve already seen and the Oscar-nominated films that, well, don’t exactly make for a turn-your-brain-off Friday night out. Like ringworm in a humid jungle environment, this is where the fad-inspired horror film flourishes, and if you think back far enough, it’s a near certainty that you’ve watched a couple over the years. Most are terrible, but director Adam Robitel has bucked that trend twice in a row. His last movie, 2018’s Insidious: The Lost Key, received some positive notices from critics, and his latest, the broad and goofy Escape Room (you know, the puzzle rooms that you tackle on your company retreats now instead of going bowling) will likely receive the same. Escape Room knows what it is and what you think of it, and it takes pleasure in defying some of your expectations. It’s an incredibly watchable and mostly satisfying experience, although it’s one that you’ll probably forget about four or five hours after you leave the theater.
Six strangers — a college-aged nerd (Taylor Russell), an alcoholic slacker (Logan Miller), a veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a middle-aged trucker (Tyler Labine), a psychopathic stockbroker (Jay Ellis), and an escape room geek (Nik Dodani) — are invited by loved ones to participate in a series of immersive and interactive escape rooms unlike any made before. They’re left a number of clues in each themed room (an office, a cabin, an upside-down bar, etc), which they’ll have to find scattered around in the environment, and they’re often timed or penalized for using force to break open puzzle objects. Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, surprise, surprise, it turns out the rooms are death traps — for example, the office is actually a giant convection oven, trying to roast them to death before they can escape — they’ll have to use all of their collective brain power and will to survive.
The rooms themselves are excellently crafted. Robitel knows that his escape rooms are the reason that people are going to see the damn movie, and he wants to give them their money’s worth. As mentioned above, the office-turned-oven is a small delight, but it’s when Robitel and company begins moving into the abstract and surreal that things get even better. The upside-down bar is a standout sequence, as our leads are forced into a fucked-up game of musical chairs that involves Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and sections of the floor (the upside-down bar’s roof) collapsing down an elevator shaft. There’s a pivotal room near the end that’s themed around television static in a way befitting early ‘90s MTV bumpers, and the drug-induced hallucinations that occur in the room are quite fun*, especially when Robitel just lets his hair down and lets his setting and his actors go for broke. Likewise, there’s a nice thrill in watching these people figure out these spaces, and the film is at it’s very best when it’s simply observing how these folks are working to survive.
Will it replace The Game or Cube in viewers’ hearts? Nah. It makes strides towards the former, such as the explanation it gives as to why each of these people have been selected for this project, but it abandons the transformative power of that type of cathartic ending in favor of something a little more closer to its chosen genre. Likewise, Vincenzo Natali can sleep well at night knowing that his intricate puzzle box and its appeal will remain unchallenged: Escape Room is, after all, a PG-13 horror movie, so the gore and nihilistic desperation of Cube can’t be replicated here, but it doesn’t need to be that film. There is one aspect from that movie that Robitel might wish he’d cribbed from a bit more, however: Every single scene set outside of the titular location should have been cut, and more time, perhaps, should have been spent inside of it. The movie is very nearly nipped in the bud at the very start by a lengthy and boring sequence of the main characters receiving their boxes, and its sequel-teasing ending is a bit underwhelming as well. But for the most part, Escape Room is a solid little thriller, with good set-pieces and swell set-design, that will undoubtedly mildly entertain on cable networks for years to come.
*This includes a lengthy strobe-like sequence of flashing images, which should give caution to those who have photosensitive epilepsy. Another year, a continuation of a shitty trend, I guess.