You may recall the killer in the Saw films wanted his victims to develop a newfound appreciation of life. Through elaborate mazes and puzzles, all of which involved torture and bloody consequences, they would learn that existence is precious thing to be savored. This idea squarely belongs in the aughts, a period where safety, security, and torture were the biggest issues in Western politics. The new high-concept thriller Escape Room has its roots in the Saw films, and also low-budget cult hits like Cube. It complicates its simple premise by partially implicating the audience: like the cameras watching the desperate characters, we are voyeurs who delight in the danger the characters find themselves.
At this point, I should probably admit I’ve never actually been to an escape room. I’ve only been told about them by friends, or seen them depicted in pop culture (the Bob’s Burgers episode about them is a delight). The basic premise of this novelty game is that you’re put into an elaborately-decorated room with friends or strangers, and you have to look for clues to solve a puzzle (usually unlocking a key). It’s a bit like the old computer game Myst, except with an actual countdown clock. The rooms in Escape Room have that same basic logic. Six strangers were all invited to the same event, with the promise that the winner would get $10,000. The game unfolds with the strangers all working to unlock the door, except the concept seems a touch too realistic. Temperatures in the room keep rising, until the room sets on fire. The strangers realize they are playing for their lives, and their only option is to solve the next clue.
Part of the appeal behind Escape Room is how that no set-piece quiet looks the same. After the oven room, the strangers are in what appears to be a wintry cabin on the edge of a lake. Then they’re in a retro-looking dive bar, except everything is upside down and they’re standing on the ceiling. Director Adam Robitel films the confined spaces dynamically, giving just enough rules so the rooms unfolds with twisted logic. Ironically, while each room includes some kind of life-threatening element, the biggest thrills are watching frightened, confused strangers use their problem solving skills. These people may freeze, drown, drop from great heights, and get poisoned, but nothing is more exciting than the tension of whether they can work together. The film is also PG13, so as the characters invariably die in elaborate ways, the film cuts away from imagery that’s too extreme.
Like what is typical for horror at the beginning of the calendar year, Escape Room features recognizable faces, instead of actual stars. Jay Ellis, aka Lawrence from HBO’s Insecure, is convincing as a cutthroat finance bro. Deborah Ann Wall, aka Karen from Netflix’s Daredevil, reaches the film’s emotional high-point as a no-nonsense Iraq War veteran. The script by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik does not play up their differences, and instead makes them into plausible innocents who bring something different to each puzzle they’re forced to solve. Most like-minded films would turn the characters against each other, and while there is some of that here, the real conflict involves uncovering a conspiracy and a secret that unites them together. It is not a huge twist, exactly, but more of an opportunity to expand the franchise like the Saw movies did.
So much of Escape Room involves watching characters think on their feet, so it is a disappointment when its climax devolves into a typical thriller. There are larger points about who is pulling the strings and why, but when screenwriters cannot imagine something beyond “the winner is the person with the gun,” then something has gone awry. And before that even happens, the final escape room sacrifices its internal logic in favor something more gruesome and chaotic. These missteps are not major ones, and only speak to how well Robitel manages to wind up his audience – for most of its runtime, anyway.
Just like Jaws made its audience afraid to go in the water, Escape Room may make its audience afraid of their local puzzle adventure. Then again, most folks already have the good sense to avoid them, anyway.