As group activities go, escape rooms are a relatively new phenomenon to build teams … or expose their weaknesses: Six to 10 people gather in a room with a theme — a dressing room, a laboratory, even a submarine. The door is “locked” (air quotes for the actuaries). The goal? Solve any puzzle presenting itself — ciphers, locks, riddles — to get out in an hour or less.
As movies go, a sadistic series of trials more fatal than they initially let on is an ancient idea. Certainly Escape Room is a teen-friendly retread of the Cubes and Saws of the world wrapped in a zeitgeisty new package. But who cares if this movie’s not intensely enjoyable? It’s enjoyably intense. Its aim is low. So what? It gets there!
You could do worse on January’s first weekend. Those who made Escape Room sure have. Adam Robitel directed 2018’s limp Insidious: The Last Key and co-writer Bragi Schut co-wrote 2011’s Season of the Witch, the one with Nicolas Cage in the Nickelback-singer haircut.
Here, Schut and co-writer Maria Melnik have done a requisite amount of homework on what escape rooms entail to lend this thriller a ruthless pace. Himself escaping the ghetto of pointless-but-profitable Insidious movies, Robitel efficiently turns the visual screws on this steroidal application of escape-room tenets.
Major props as well to production designer Edward Thomas, art director Mark Walker and set decorator Tracy Perkins for their sleek, steely and — most importantly — detailed rendering of rooms for which a less ambitious production would not have sprung. Standouts include a trippy space that’s like Tim Burton meets Requiem for a Dream and the American Ninja Warrior-esque requirements of an upside-down pool hall. In there, Petula Clark’s “Downtown” repeats over and over, at deafening levels and sonically degrading with each spin … and dropping out a chunk of floor each time. (It certainly puts a morbidly ironic spin on Clark’s otherwise jaunty lyrics.)
The set-up is simple: Throw together six strangers and watch tempers (and temperatures) boil as their chances of survival (and … well … also temperatures) precipitously drop.
There’s Zoey (Taylor Russell of Netflix’s Lost in Space), a shy-genius college student. Ben (Love, Simon’s Logan Miller) is a grocery stocker going nowhere. Jason (Jay Ellis of HBO’s Insecure) takes the alpha-male role as a well-cut cutthroat businessman. Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) is Mike, a gray-bearded trucker. Deborah Ann Woll (Netflix’s Daredevil) plays Amanda, a traumatized military veteran. The movie’s Randy Meeks is Danny (Nik Dodani of Netflix’s Atypical), who has completed 93 escape rooms and explains the rules both to his hapless teammates and the audience.
That paragraph contains more details about the performers’ acting cred than you’ll find in Escape Room. They’re plot functionaries here, and that’s fine. As Danny quips, “The actors they hire for these things aren’t exactly Dame Judi Dench.”
Each has received an invitation from someone they know to the Minos Escape Room. Yeah, yeah. Whoever escapes first will get $10,000. Might have done at least one of them well to know the place is named for a king who sent folks into a labyrinth to feed his minotaur. Much as a gamemaster would dole out hints at a strip-mall escape room that’s not trying to kill you, so does the film about the sextet’s connecting thread … and how it will be exploited within the game.
Backstory is crucial to the enjoyment of an escape room; it’s always nice to have a little something more than just “beat the clock.” And if there’s any moment when Escape Room angrily yanks at a lock it lacks the combination to open, it’s here. The stale reveal of what’s happening apes a certain sequel from last year — with far less artfulness or impressive sinistry, no matter how Dutch-accented dastardliness the exposition is given. Escape Room never quite finds that code for the exit door, but much like the real deal it’s still a fun time without it.