Six strangers. Seven different rooms all capable of providing severe maiming or instant death. Sounds like the latest in the Saw franchise, yes? Welcome to Escape Room, which is, essentially, “Saw-lite” for the PG-13 crowd. Minus the gore, swearing, and the excessively-green-tinted photography, Escape Room comes off genuinely heart-palpitating, with more than its share of competent, well-constructed set pieces.
Not gonna lie: I dig these kinds of movies. Any kind of riff on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (we shall not use its former name, thank you), where people are abandoned in an isolated area only to be hunted and systematically eliminated by an unseen killer? Combine that with the mysteries of locked-room stories and I’m in. Capitalizing on the current escape room trend makes this a little more accessible than Saw’s “You’ve done wrong, and now you have to dig behind your eyeball to get the key to open the trap about to kill you” modus operandi.
There’s not much to it: six people from disparate walks of life are all given mysterious puzzle boxes which end up being invitations to a very exclusive escape room. So exclusive that there’s an armed guard at the sign-in desk who also collects cell phones and, oddly enough, seems to know more than he should about the game’s participants. “Thank you for your service,” he solemnly says out of nowhere to the heretofore-unseen Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), who’s just as puzzled as we are.
Up an elevator and into the waiting room, we find the other invitees. We’re introduced to Zoey (Taylor Russell), a brainiac who lives a fearful life; Ben (Logan Miller), an alcoholic dog food-packer; Mike (Tyler Labine), a jovial trucker; Jason (Jay Ellis), a moneyed, smooth-talking executive; and Danny (Nik Dodani), a self-professed escape room expert. When we first meet them in the waiting room, most everyone’s genial except for Jason, who obviously thinks all these people are beneath him and spends his time heaping insults upon everyone, basing his shallow, biting statements on what little he can infer from each character. The relative adults of the group – Amanda and Mike – try to maintain level heads, but there’s only so much each of them can take of Jason’s needling and vainglorious, self-serving attitude.
All six actors dig into their character’s exaggerations to the point of annoyance, as everyone’s out to push someone’s buttons except for Zoey, whom Russell plays as meek and timid. Miller shivers and shakes with all the fervor of someone caught somewhere between a nic fit and desperately needing a drink, and is just as irritable as you’d think. Likewise on the irritable side is Dodani’s Danny, an escape room know-it-all who thinks all of what’s happening is a lark until the waiting room turns into a crematorium.
Some of the actors are just as iffy as their characters, with the veterans’ experience often showing up the newcomers. Woll and Sabine seem comfortable in their shoes, while the others seem to be controlled by a light switch, flipped from agog to frenetic whenever director Adam Robitel wants to amp up the tension. Yet… it works. Change one thing about any of these performances and you’d wind up with an overacted morality play, which Escape Room avoids by pushing straight on with keeping the suspense levels high.
As the game wears on, our players’ strengths – and dark histories – come to the fore, some with a damaging vengeance. They’re all there for a specific reason, and of course, the common thread uniting them will eventually be laid bare. But the movie telegraphs its surprises all too early, removing all sense of shock from what could have been a fairly great reveal. The film constantly drops in flashbacks to establish why our characters act the way they do, and instead of adding a layer of danger to the proceedings, they slow the film down a bit and aren’t built upon any further until they’re reinstated at a dramatically convenient time.
Escape Room alternates between cribbing vibes straight from James Mangold’s Identity, Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, and the aforementioned Saw films. Several hallmarks of these films – a brutal fight over an object meant for one, the dubious nature of one of the participants, the self-sacrifice so people can keep moving forward, and an unexpected double surprise twist toward the end – kind of yank you out of the ride a little too often. But thankfully, at least Robitel and editor Steve Mirkovich have the good sense to keep things moving at a quick pace. Marc Spicer’s widescreen photography allows us the space to fully appreciate the complexity of some of the setups before Mirkovich ratchets up the quick-cutting visual assault as time in each room runs down to leave the next victim dead.
One of the film’s most impressive set pieces involves an inverted room in which a distorted recording of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” rings out in the room’s speakers. It’s an uncomfortable and disorienting room to behold and endure, with Spicer capturing every centimeter of it in his frame, isolating our heroes against this warped reality. Even worse is the room’s lethal surprise, which someone meets with the best of the film’s courage. This room is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Escape Room, and the performances and technical aspects make this a terrific highlight of the film.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with Escape Room, if you go in understanding that it’s not the most original movie in the world. Calling it “Saw-lite” is too easy; no one’s put in a trap where heads will be ripped apart, nor is there one dark, omniscient game master pulling all the strings. Escape Room has a wholly different hook to it, remaining in the world of the game while dealing death to its losers. Each participant brings their own spirit to the game, for better or for worse. Half the fun is watching these personalities mix it up; the other half is watching them navigate their way to salvation.