Escape Room (2019)

You’re invited to play for your life.

With low budgets and high box office returns, it’s clear that Sony head Amy Pascal and her producing buds Neal H. Moritz, Hunter Killer (2018), and Ori Marmur, Passengers (2016), are grappling for a slice of the lucrative PG-13 horror pie, so well dominated by the legendary Blumhouse of Paranormal Activity (2007-15) fame. Unlike its founder Jason Blum, however, they’re not as smart in their strategy. Aggressively pushing towards expansion and franchising, Sony is too eager to get into teens’ pockets to notice the real quality of what they’re putting out. But, hey, once enough bums are on seats, who really cares, right?

Like last year’s dud Slender Man (2018), Sony has once again come late to the party, taking on the concept of escape rooms in a thriller movie. There have already been two (yes two) films with the exact same title released in 2017, one directed by Peter Dukes, the other by Will Wernick. This, of course, overlooks the entire Saw (2004-17) franchise, a gleefully over-the-top torture-porn gorefest that featured elaborate traps and puzzles. And there was the tragically underappreciated Cube (1997), a kind of precursor to the former. Not to mention, the often forgotten puzzle-box of a film that was David Fincher’s The Game (1997), as taut and darkly playful as anything he’s ever made.

What’s your pleasure, Sir?

Here, with this Escape Room, six strangers receive a mysterious puzzle-box, which, upon cracking it, leads them to the Minos Escape Room Facility and a chance to win ten thousand dollars should they successfully break out. Our ‘contestants’ are reclusive physics student Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell), awkward supermarket stockboy Ben Miller (Logan Miller), successful stockbroker Jason Walker (Jay Ellis), former miner-turned truck driver Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine), Iraq war veteran Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), and escape room enthusiast Danny Khan (Nik Dodani), who’s seemingly done them all. Despite their initial reservations, the players soon find themselves forced into working together, facing a real game of life and death as they attempt to survive one elaborate chamber after another.

The high concept core of Sony’s Escape Room is admittedly an intriguing tease and was no doubt the main selling point of the screenplay by Bragi F. Schut, Season of the Witch (2011), and Maria Melnik, the latter making the jump from TV to feature screenwriting. Real escape room experiences have also grown in popularity over the last five or so years, and putting oneself in such a vulnerable space could lead to all sorts of unknown threats, especially if some truly evil bastard wanted to exploit that. The weird thing with the way this film’s puzzles develop, though, is how little space is allowed for the audience to engage with the attractions. It’s as if we’re rushing along the last few rides of a carnival, and director Adam Robitel, Insidious: The Last Key (2018), has no qualms either making things too obvious (and the characters seem stupid) or gifting them some sort of hyper-awareness that feels as though we’ve missed something. The result is alienation — things aren’t relatable, which reduces any real involvement in the suspense on screen.

… feeling hot, hot, hot!

The cast does their best, but the confines of the material mean they’re stretched to smooth out leaps in character motivation and depth. The screenplay by Schut and Melnik includes awkwardly inserted flashbacks, which don’t necessarily make the characters more interesting. In fact, in the case of Amanda (the ever stunning Deborah Ann Woll), when we find out she’s meant to be a soldier suffering from some sort of PTSD, it doesn’t ring true — especially with the generic ‘traumatic memory’ of dragging herself out of a car. Being such a warrior type, surely she’s more physically capable than she initially makes out, even if she does eventually step up later on. Ben’s ‘tragic’ car accident, which is linked to the tune of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is just plain outrageous, more so when it’s revealed that the game-makers somehow know about this incredibly personal moment — um, how exactly? At least the Saw franchise made some credible cases for how information was discovered.

The absolute highlight of the whole film, and the main reason why anyone would really consider checking this out, is the production design. Art director Mark Walker, Tomb Raider (2018), and production designer Edward Thomas, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (2016), have gone to town with the wild possibilities afforded by the story. My favorite of the escape rooms is an upside down bar, with intricacies such as a billiard table (and its balls) up on the ceiling, not to mention a hilariously warped loop of ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark, which creates one helluva disorientating experience. Is it ridiculous? You betcha, but that’s what we’re here for!

‘Okay, we’ve officially hit the ceiling!’

Just on that, there’s an unintentionally funny sequence that involves a room that looks as though it’s a rejected concept from a 90’s Prodigy music video — we’re talking a dark black-and-white psychedelic environment, complete with white noise on a TV, where the characters trip out after touching an LSD drug. At one moment, I was reminded of the rapid space-jump scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), with eyes practically popping out from characters’ heads — yep, it’s that kind of crazy.

Escape Room certainly ain’t the worst thriller you could check out, but it’s not the most exciting or memorable either. The biggest hindrance here is the film’s reluctance to engage with its audience and slowly tease the mysteries along. It doesn’t help that most of the characters feel a bit distant. Look, if you’re desperate for something to watch while chowing down on your popcorn be my guest, but you’re likely to find more engagement in an actual escape room — just make sure it’s not produced by Sony.

2.5 / 5 – Alright

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

Escape Room is released through Sony Pictures Australia