Movie Review: Escape Room
By Ben Gruchow
January 16, 2019
Let’s step back about twenty years, to November 1999. Remember Toy Story 2? That movie started life as a direct-to-video sequel, which Disney had already developed into a thriving cottage industry. The narrative goes that someone at Pixar realized, halfway into production, that what the studio had on their hands was too good to be consigned to the DTV bin. The decision was made to convert the movie to a theatrical release—and rather than just complete it and strike the print, a good chunk of completed footage was totally scrapped and re-done to give it the appropriate scale for the big screen. The result was one of the best animated films of the decade.
I thought of the Disney/Pixar sequel in the context of assessing Escape Room, which feels like a project where the same thing happened during production, and the studio took the route of adding on to the existing material rather than going back and starting from scratch on a bigger canvas. Nowhere is this more evident than in its final scene (which adds a superfluous sequel hook and punches all sorts of holes through the movie’s narrative fabric in the process) but there are little uneven spurts of “raise the stakes” throughout: a line here, a shot or two there, clearly meant to imbue the superficial with the profound. The fact that they all feel artificially grafted into the film rather than woven in doesn’t really feel that dissonant, because everything is pretty shallow. But it is a little disappointing in the context of everything the movie does well; its story mechanics are nifty and well-paced, and its setpieces are genuinely effective.
Those setpieces take the form of escape rooms, those artificial chambers designed for a group of people to solve puzzles and mysteries within an allotted timeframe. What happens if they don’t escape by the time the clock strikes zero? As escape-room expert Danny (Nik Dodani) puts it, “some guy comes in and tells you about all the clues you missed and you feel really stupid”. Real-life escape rooms can be elaborate; I highly doubt they get as elaborate as the ones in this film, which are so artfully and precisely engineered and detailed to resemble exotic environments that it’s almost a shame when they start breaking and crushing themselves. That’s the other unique thing about the rooms here: they’re all designed to kill the participants, in very real and amusingly-intricate ways.
Danny is one of six strangers invited to try out a top-flight series of escape rooms, although the movie first concerns itself with grocery-store employee Ben (Logan Miller), stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), and college student Zoey (Taylor Russell). The three of them each receive mysterious little puzzle cubes which, when opened, give an RSVP and directions to an escape-room company called Minos, and a chance to win $10,000 should they
survive the night beat the challenge. The other half of the cohort consists of Danny, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), and Mike (Tyler Labine).
The six of them meet in the waiting room, and things begin to happen. It would be rude of me to reveal anything further—because part of the fun is in seeing how the rooms present their challenges and obstacles, and because the unconventional way the movie introduces its characters means that it’s able to very quickly start layering these bits of backstory into the narrative, and those bits don’t waste a whole lot of time before tying themselves together.
This is one of the movie’s two main strengths: it ladles in clues and shades of character development mostly in small chunks, against a plot that moves at a steady pace that’s still brisk enough to avoid any passages of momentum-deadening stasis or exposition—up to a point. There’s a no-frills sensibility to each of these minor revelations that acts as a kind of emotional cushioning. I am thinking of an exchange involving a winter coat for warmth, where the participants accept and act without fanfare; the story being in constant motion, we have little choice but to do the same along with them in order to keep up. These things help us develop some kind of attachment to otherwise thinly-drawn characters; it’s a far shorter distance to root for them than against them, or to simply watch them being manipulated through a setpiece.
Those setpieces are Escape Room other, more obvious strength. There are a half-dozen escape-room scenario, give or take one that seems like a quick transitional piece more than anything else, and each one is an impressive achievement in set design and puzzle construction. The showcase sequence (and the film’s absolute pinnacle in terms of tension and visual ingenuity) puts the remaining characters through an upside-down country-western bar set, with the inversion of an utterly typical environment making us do some unexpected heavy lifting cognitively in order to make visual sense of what’s going on.
This is also where the movie’s logic starts to break down even on its own fantastical terms (although the sequence is so involving that we either don’t notice or don’t care). When the bar set reveals the nature of its stakes, it raises the question in our minds of spatial orientation relative to the building we saw the characters enter; the reveal doesn’t break that sense of relativity, technically, but it does redesign the layout of Minos in our minds in a way that begs further detail and exploration, and that point never arrives. We simply move on to the next room.
More consequential is what this reveal does to the story’s foundation; it basically lays the groundwork for a very specific type of resolution, and the resolution we actually get is the point I referred to a few paragraphs ago. Put simply, the final set of plot reveals don’t just break the movie; they break each other and themselves in real-time. And the effect is cumulative, so each new break is more resonant than the previous one. There is a variant on the Talking Killer, with motives that cheapen the elaborate trials of the last hour; there is a variant on It Was All a Dream, which answers an early question about an odd name and lands a decent punch while also removing much of the investment we might have had; there is the very last scene, which utterly annihilates the previous scope of influence for the antagonist(s) and begs the question of why they (or we) bothered with the main narrative at all.
And yet I find it tough to get very worked-up about this late collapse in logic. This has to be partly due to lowered expectations; I certainly wasn’t planning on a PG-13 thriller in January to hit a home run in narrative or resolution in any capacity. It’s partly due to the fact that the rest of Escape Room really is decent. Director Adam Robitel keeps the tone and psychology just this side of plausible; the cast reaches for the believable corners of the characters they’re playing. The basic pitch is functionally delivered, and the movie works, as advertised. It’s the underlying context that ultimately lets it down, if only just.
2.5 out of 5