I might be betraying my age by admitting I wasn’t sure what an escape room was before seeing this movie. I had a vague idea it was some kind of game but had to conduct research to learn how popular and pervasive a phenomena it was. No surprise then that someone wanted to capitalize on this growing pass time and make a movie about it.
When skateboarding was all the rage we got Gleaming the Cube. Cheerleading competitions became so big they were broadcast on ESPN, and, subsequently, the movie Bring It On was made. Sometimes the reverse effect can happen. The most famous instance is Raiders of the Lost Ark, after which universities saw an explosion of students signing up to study archaeology.
In the case of Escape Room, clearly Columbia Pictures looked around and saw millions of people engaging in games –where players are locked in a room and given clues in order to win their freedom—and saw a feature film. The games, though they can appear scary, with rooms resembling dungeons or war bunkers, are innocuous, and, whether you solve the puzzle or not, your liberty is returned.
Not so in Escape Room the movie where six people are lured to an escape room in Chicago which is anything but harmless. The characters soon find themselves uttering that oft-spoken movie line “this is for real” as the rooms with which they contend are mortally dangerous.
The ensemble of players is The Breakfast Club of escape room teams. The cocky bond trader; the hot, female war vet, a grisly trucker, a Big Bang cast member, a shy but brilliant physics student, and a burnout loser. Maybe it would have made the repartee less witty and the diversity scolds more angry, but cramming these vastly different types together did feel forced.
In fact, much of the film felt artificial. What can I possibly mean? All films are artifices, real people pretending to be fictional characters. True of course, but when a film has little more than a gimmick the viewer can’t fall in love with it or the characters. And that’s what Escape Room is, a clever piece of work with some snappy writing and nail-biting situations but absolutely no depth.
One response might be, so what? This movie is meant to be a fun time, and you shouldn’t think too much about it. But many similar films can be entertaining on a popcorn level but also have a dramatic purpose.
Jumanji worked quite well in this regard because we understood the characters’ strengths and weaknesses prior to their journey and they evolved over the course of the movie into better people for it.
Escape Room lacks any kind of layer like this. Instead it feels more an extension of the Saw franchise, in which a brilliant mad man devises intricate and gruesome ways for those he captures to die. I’m not sure how many chapters in the Saw franchise there were, but it eventually ran its course. That is, until Escape Room came along and re-packaged the conceit.
I’ll give the movie credit for whisking you along. It has few slow or dull points, but its one dimensionality is its biggest weakness. When you have no idea what you want to say with a piece of material, it becomes difficult to carry on and to conclude the story with plausibility.
And that’s why the audience with which I saw Escape Room found itself groaning the more the film ran. The ending, in particular, is both cliched and eye-rolling because the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with this situation past the hook. So they slapped something on to get it up to 90 minutes, and indeed it was slapdash.
Though I was unfamiliar with the fad of escape rooms, this kind of movie is quite recognizable to me. It puts the cart before the horse. The cart is the pitch of the movie in the studio boardroom, and that all sounds swell and gets executives excited, but there is no horse to do the heavy lifting of taking an idea and making it a fully formed story with a connection to a theme or character development
Instead of finding yet another puzzle the characters needed to solve to avoid their demise, Escape Room would have benefitted from more self awareness. Why are we making this film, and what are we trying to say, it seems the filmmakers never really asked themselves.
Not every movie need be a probing, Oscar-contending drama, but even pictures such as Escape Room should take heed of the fundamental reasons for telling stories. Instead, too often, they just want to spring a trap on us and watch us twist and struggle with the consequences, to no greater purpose.
Blast Magazine rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Directed by: Adam Robitel
Cast: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Jay Ellis, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani with Yorick van Wageningen
Screenplay: Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik
Produced by: Neal H. Moritz and Ori Marmur