When did the plotline of strangers trapped together, trying to get out of a desperate situation, become a Hollywood staple? Sixty years ago, horror master William Castle had a big hit with “House on Haunted Hill,” in which five people were invited to a creepy mansion, with $10,000 going to whoever made it through the night. Folks have been trapped by natural disasters (“The Poseidon Adventure”), by maniacs (“Saw”), by alien races (“Predators”).
“Escape Room” goes back to the Castle idea: A seemingly harmless invite for a disparate group of individuals to get together, then try to get out, with a cash prize awaiting the one who succeeds. (Note: In the trailer, the reward is $1 million, but in the film, it’s $10,000; what’s THAT all about?)
“Escape Room” kicks off in a clichéd manner, showing a character trapped in a wood-paneled library, with the walls closing in on him, frantically looking for clues to stop that from happening. The cliché part comes in when in the midst of that, the film shoots back to “three days earlier.” C’mon, why couldn’t it just start three days earlier?
But everything does quickly start to take shape, first with the introduction of some characters and hints of their situations and what makes them tick. Zoey (Taylor Russell) is a college student who’s into quantum physics but is terribly shy. Ben (Logan Miller) is a restaurant worker with no social skills. Jason (Jay Ellis) is a hot-shot business executive who’s full of himself. They and three others - tough Army veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), angry but laughing lout Mike (Taylor Labine), and geeky Danny (Nik Dodani) have received gifts of identical puzzle boxes. When opened, they’re presented with an invite to take part in an immersive escape room game ... for money!
They meet each other in an office building waiting room where excitable Danny, a self-proclaimed expert at this kind of thing, tells the others that an escape room “is like a real-life video game” and that the main rule is “to escape before the clock runs out.” But before that can sink in, the participants realize that the game has begun, which is why the doors suddenly lock, loud noises are heard, and the walls become glowing orange heating elements, with the temperature soaring upward.
Things appear to get deadly quite quickly, but when a wall panel opens and a long metal duct is revealed, you just know they’re going to make it out, and into another, more elaborate, room. And so it goes: The terribly hot inside room leads to a bitingly cold “outdoor” room, which leads to a warm and comfy bar room that, initially, none of the group notices is upside down. What’s easier for them to understand is that in short order, this all starts turning into an Agatha Christie sort of enterprise, with participants being winnowed out, meeting violent deaths. The good news/bad news, depending upon your viewing tastes, is that none of the violence is garish or gory.
On the fast-paced way to its conclusion, the film takes a few detours. As the participants try, usually in vain, to work as a team, there are brief flashbacks to earlier times in each of their lives, offering clues as to how and why they got their invites. Different personalities and attitudes emerge, explaining why they can or can’t work together. The writers offer shout-outs to “The Karate Kid,” to Petula Clark, or at least her version of “Downtown,” and to M.C. Escher. The last one makes perfect sense when you think of Escher’s picture puzzles; the first two do not.
There are some good, creepy moments that show cameras trained on everything going on without revealing who’s doing the watching, though that’s kind of ruined when, near the end, we get a look at who and what is behind the curtains. Yet, that’s saved by a couple of good twists. It’s a movie that’s has equal parts of fun, tension and silliness. It would be perfect for a Saturday matinee, but only if you really have nothing else to do.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik; directed by Adam Robitel
With Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Jay Ellis, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani