Director Adam Robitel's Escape Room is a psychological thriller that capitalizes on the entertainment trend, but unlike so many films based on such topics, gimmicks or games, it finds a way to mine its premise for some depth.
Six disparate characters are trapped in a maze of deadly escape rooms and, as they attempt to survive new horrors with each puzzle they solve, they simultaneously discover they’ve been handpicked to be part of their doomed team because they share something in common. What probably reads as a predictable premise nevertheless finds a way to to surprise and frighten in satisfying ways. This could’ve been an Emoji Movie situation, but luckily Escape Room is trendy and good at the same time.
The cast features Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) and Jay Ellis (Insecure) in principle roles, as well as Tyler Labine (Voltron), Logan Miller (The Walking Dead), Taylor Russell (Lost in Space) and Nik Dodani (Murphy Brown). Each character receives a cryptic invitation in the form of a puzzle box supposedly sent to them by various friends and acquaintances. All six converge on an escape room at their appointed time, and eventually realize this is no game. While each member of the ensemble dutifully gets a moment to shine, like an overloaded plane, the size of the cast makes it difficult for the film to get off the ground. Also, the script pays a lot of lip service to the idea that no one who’s in a horror movie has ever seen a horror movie before, so it takes a minute for anyone to realize they’re in danger. Between finding a way to flesh out each character and allowing the group perhaps too long to get a handle on their situation, the first third of the movie is borderline tedious.
However, once Escape Room finds its groove, it shines on a number of levels, not the least of which is the thrill of watching people battle nightmarish versions of a traditionally fun activity. If you’ve participated in an escape room, chances are you had a fleeting thought that it was on some level stupid/risky to lock yourself in a room and give a total stranger the key. The movie preys on that fear and blows it out under several different sets of circumstances. It gives the story a demented funhouse feel that will have you both fearing and anticipating the horrors to come as the team fights its way to the finish. Also, the film feels aware of its own silliness and never shoots itself in the foot by taking things too seriously for too long.
And while the ensemble does feel ungainly at first, its members come together as the movie progresses, both literally as they need to cooperate to solve the rooms and stay alive, and figuratively as chemistry emerges and emotional relationships develop. The danger with a thriller featuring a large cast of characters who don’t know each other at the top of the story is that what relationships are formed will ultimately be shallow or forced as their development is sacrificed on the altar of action. Escape Room has its moments of unearned sentimentality, to be sure, but for the most part the actors forge emotionally honest relationships that wind up creating a denouement that’s about more than getting out of their predicament alive.
But what’s most satisfying regarding the actors is the low-key diversity casting at work in the film. Deborah Ann Woll plays a veteran suffering from PTSD after surviving an IED blast; Jay Ellis is an avaricious financier; and Taylor Russell portrays a genius nerd who feels like the college version of Missy from Netflix’s Big Mouth, and eventually becomes an unlikely savior. It’s difficult to imagine this movie made a decade ago without a white dude playing one or all of those roles, and it’s refreshing to see that Escape Room took one of the deceptively easy, and very necessary, steps toward a more representative media.
Finally, as the film grows to a close, the mystery of who’s behind the ordeal is solved with a twist that feels a bit of a deus ex machina (mostly due to its revelation being neatly delivered via speedy monologue), but works pretty neatly as a sequel set-up. And ultimately, Escape Room is fun and self-aware enough by the end we’re charmed into going wherever it takes us. After navigating a trend-based movie and a complicated ensemble, it’s earned enough trust to stick the landing. Plus, the solution to the mystery sharply, if a little obviously, speaks to the 1 percent vs. 99 percent economic frustrations that have been a huge part of American culture since 2008 making it timely in addition to being entertaining.
Whether Escape Room will manage to stretch out its gimmick to sequels remains to be seen, as does the question of whether it’ll get the opportunity to do so. But as a standalone thriller, it gets the job done and will leave you wanting more.
Directed by Adam Robitel, Escape Room stars Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis and Nik Dodani. It's in theaters now.