Poorly written frights weigh down this thriller's technical flex.
February 27, 2019
Escape Room, Original Films’ sadistic take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, puts genre fabulist Adam Robitel in a bigger playpen. In this loftier sandbox, he plays with less regard to subtlety than an unmistakable penchant for elaborate setpieces—a good number of which are thrilling and showcase a level of finesse expected from movies thrice this size. In that respect, the film is impressive.
Like Willy’s fine candy-making establishment, Robitel grinds a well-oiled machine, with each part engineered to function perfectly well. It works dangerously close like clockwork and offers little in the way of surprise from setup to payoff. You know from the onset which of the film’s questionable band of misfits fit whichever character trope: the resilient loser (Logan Miller), the prissy final girl (Taylor Russell), and the obnoxious nerd kid (Nik Dodano) wearing an almost goofy pair horn-rimmed glasses. One character is set up to be the film’s heroine (Deborah Ann Woll), and another (Jay Ellis) is laced with so much Wall Street bro-ness that you cringe every time he “involuntarily” flexes his pectoral muscles. One character (Tyler Labine) is unjustly underwritten and thrown in…just to be there, I guess?
The film kicks off when the six shows up for Minos’ exclusive, high-end “immersive escape room” event that promises those who beat the game $1,000,000—an obvious nod to William Castle’s 1959 seminal classic House on Haunted Hill. There, they learn that the game espouses an exceedingly Darwinian spin to the format. Each “room” is impossibly vast and contains items cherry-picked from vulnerable moments in each of the players’ lives. A couple of rooms in, Zoey, the shy young woman and the only one with a proper sense of thinking of the bunch, figures that the game is, ultimately, rigged against them, and that they aren’t playing for the cash prize but for their own survival.
Over the course of the movie, these characters’ motivations appear vague to virtually nonexistent, but what’s clear is the fact that Robitel is more than capable of orchestrating suspenseful setpieces. The film has its biggest fun when it lays down its twisted life-and-death puzzles, each laced with knotted tension and thick, almost sentient suspense. One particularly thrilling sequence has the remaining of our unwitting players shuffle in an inverted retro diner. In just about a few minutes, Zoey & Co. realize they have just entered an absolutely deranged, upside-down version of “the floor is lava”(or is it right to call it “the ceiling is lava”?), a game in which players literally fall to their deaths when they step on the ceiling long enough.
Robitel’s gifts as a film technician can only go so far, though. I remember being reminded of this during the third act, where screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik seems to have shaken on it and decided they will throw, point-blank, shit right on the fan. The film offers a frustratingly un-specific explanation as to how Zoey and the others have been moved to partake in Minos’ sadistic little game. A full-fledged clusterfuck of events follow, involving impromptu meditations, defibrillators, and acid tripping—a combo that works four times out of five, granted that the writing is anything above decent.
Sadly, Escape Room‘s screenplay leaves much to be desired. No significant change occurs for these characters—if we’d be so generous as to call them that. The conniving baddie remained a conniving baddie through and through. The resilient loser becomes only more resilient as the same loser. The filler character serves its sole purpose of giving the film an extra body to maim and mutilate.
In the end, it needs to be said that though the film doesn’t quite surpass the smarts of its own premise, it still feels like a ride worth catching, even if only for the catharsis of seeing some of the most obnoxious pseudo-characters in horror befall aptly gruesome deaths.