“Try doing one thing that scares you over break,” says a college professor to Zoey (Taylor Russell) after completing one of those let’s-open-our-movie-with-a-class-scene lectures. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where the teacher is somehow talking about the exact thing the movie is about, or otherwise is planting a piece of crucial information in the student’s head. The ones that never actually feel like they are real classroom discussions.
This is the start of Escape Room, a film about the trendy entertainment exhibits where groups of people are trapped inside a room and must find clues and solve puzzles to get out. But the danger of the escape rooms in the film are real! (high concept premise for an ill-fated PG-13 January horror/thriller film: check).
Director Adam Robitel owned this first weekend in January box office slot last year, with the release of Insidious: The Last Key. While that film drags the Insidious franchise along well past its natural expiration point (as often happens with horror franchises), Robitel’s film did not reek of the utter laziness that January horror films often do.
We’re talking Underworld sequels and Bye Bye men. Your Forests and your Texas Chainsaws 3D. The Woman in Black 2. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. The Boy. And that’s just the last five Januaries.
With Escape Room, I think Robitel has glided over that low bar of January genre films once again. In fact, I think this exceeds his previous effort.
The film has clear shortcomings, sure. Most take the form of failings of logic. The most egregious error of the film may be that five people all read the clue “You’ll go down in history,” and their minds collectively go to U.S. presidents before red-nosed reindeer.
The film also struggles with its characters, none of whom are particularly interesting or developed. They are defined by single moments that happened in their pasts and otherwise have personalities that can be explained in words and phrases. And they are personalities that we always see in these “game movies.” The asshole. The helpful schlub with less-than intelligence. The savant that doesn’t talk much. The burnout who wants to turn his/her life around. The trained professional.
However, logical fallacies and cliched characters are par for the course with these movies. “Game movies,” for a lack of a better term, are these psychological experiment thrillers where people are forced against their will to compete in a mysterious game. It is The Game, Cube, Saw, Circle, The Belko Experiment, Would You Rather?, Exam, etc. Films of varying quality using slight variations on a theme.
For a film that follows this familiar premise, Escape Room opens a door into some visual territory that sets it apart from the lesser game movies. A set that is inverted, so that contestants stand on the ceiling and have to solve a riddle while chunks of the ceiling fall away around their feet, is particularly striking to the eye. Particularly due to how it is shot. Robitel brings competent direction to this B-movie conceit, adding energy to the rather creative escape rooms.
The best that could be said about Escape Room is that they put some thought into it, where other films of its variety often lack the forethought. Escape Room doesn’t suffer from full-on cart-before-the-horse syndrome, where the high concept premise is thought up and put into a script before the proper way to execute the idea is adequately hashed out.
Once the film hits its climax, however, we do start to see the wheels slowing. The screenwriters didn’t quite stick the landing with the rapid resolution and sequel setup. What results is a third act that is disappointing, particularly if you were intrigued by what has come before. There is not an adequate resolution, and it sucks the air out of the experience.
But there is a fun inventiveness to the staging of the escape rooms. It does not grow tiresome when the characters find themselves in the third or fourth room, as each room has an individual aesthetic. For what it is, it is a good time at the movies. Some alcohol recommended.
Escape Room: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)