Review: Escape Room (2019)

Escape Room is an early January, PG-13 horror movie about a group of strangers trapped in a series of killer escape rooms; as such, you can’t go in with too many expectations, but it does a fair job of reaching those minimal hopes of at least being fun.

First things first, if you truly are itching for a good story about deadly escape rooms, go play the Zero Escape video game trilogy; though this may seem like a dumb premise, this is one that has actually been done incredibly well in a different medium – and considering the protagonist of this film starts off in a quantum physics class, I feel the writers have to be aware of this series. There’s no way to watch this movie and not compare the two.

As Zero Escape proves, the concept of Escape Room has room for excellence, but it requires a certain bit of cleverness the creators never strive to achieve. Actual escape rooms are full of twisted logic, and many times devolve into a room full of people yelling at each other in a panic as they become overwhelmed by puzzles. The most obvious way to translate this into horror is to make the solutions themselves dangerous; trying the wrong thing means risking death.

But here, the deaths are largely incidental. Of course the rooms themselves need to be dangerous to set the threat, but their true purpose should be to push the protagonists into doing something even more dangerous to escape. But there’s rarely a moment where anyone chooses to take a risk to proceed. There’s no satisfying ironies or conundrums here, just the basic struggle for survival.

The characters and dialogue are likewise shallow. Zoey is blandly quiet, Ben is a classical failure, Danny’s too oblivious to function, and on and on. A central premise is that these characters have all survived disasters in the past, but that seems to largely serve the purpose of trying to force our sympathies.

Escape Room also has a simply atrocious beginning and end. It opens with a character alone in a room, desperately trying to escape. It’s something we have come to expect from films like this, an earlier victim being shown meeting their gruesome fate – but this is no earlier victim. This is one of the main protagonists. They literally start the movie by showing that this particular character is going to be alone in one of the rooms, essentially spoiling the fates of everyone else. Additionally, the film introduces three of the characters before the game begins; it’s not hard to figure out why they get introductions and the others do not.

The last ten minutes exist purely to set up a sequel. There’s no satisfying conclusion here, just the bold promise for more. Due to this, Escape Room feels like part one of two.

While the story is flawed in numerous ways, I don’t find Escape Room entirely worthless. It’s tense where it needs to be, and the visual design of the rooms largely works. The upside-down room is an especially satisfying sequence. The technical and stylistic aspects are competent enough.

Escape Room works if you’re looking for some mindless entertainment; I never found myself bored outside of the overlong sequel setup. But it never aspires to anything more, and poor writing drags everything else down. It feels as if the creators thought the premise was clever enough on its own, without realizing the setups of the individual rooms would be the driving force of that cleverness; there’s no sense of effort. Instead, it’s Saw-lite, and who wants to be that?

1.5 Stars Out of 5

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