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Movie Review: “ESCAPE ROOM” can’t break out of formula

Thursday, January 3, 2019 | Review

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Starring Taylor Russell, Logan Miller and Jay Ellis
Directed by Adam Robitel
Written by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik
Columbia

The best thing about ESCAPE ROOM, appropriately, is the escape rooms. The many different and well-realized environments that the characters in this captivity-horror film have to navigate are more interesting than the characters themselves.

The scenario of a group of disparate people trapped in a death-dealing environment and forced to puzzle their way out has become a familiar genre staple in the likes of CUBE, the SAW series and their many imitations over the last couple of decades. Now that escape rooms offering patrons similar but safe challenges have become popular, it was inevitable that they become movie subjects of their own. There have already been two other features called ESCAPE ROOM (one starring Skeet Ulrich and Sean Young) in the past year or so, and this one, which was filmed under the title THE MAZE, has been proficiently realized but doesn’t bring enough variety to the storytelling table.

All the basics of the formula are in place in Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik’s script, and it opens with the latest example of a truly annoying, suspense-killing trend in modern horror: a flash-forward to a climactic scene revealing who the last survivor is going to be. (Seriously, why??) Jumping back “three days earlier,” the movie then introduces us to a few of the people fated to become trapped together: brilliant but withdrawn college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), financial shark Jason (Jay Ellis) and down-and-out grocery stocker Ben (Logan Miller). Each receives a mysterious box of the type the Cenobites might find familiar, which disgorges an invitation to take part in an escape room with a $10,000 prize waiting at the end.

When our trio arrive at the waiting room, they and we meet the other three participants: emotionally and physically scarred soldier Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), game nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), and Mike (Tyler Labine), who has no real distinguishing characteristic beyond the regular-guy charisma Labine brings to the role. After a bit of banter, they discover that—whoops—the waiting room is actually the beginning of the escape room, and as it slowly transforms into a giant oven, they realize that the stakes will truly be life-and-death.

As the group make their way from one chamber to another, ranging from an indoor frozen-lake setting to an upside-down pool hall (site of the best setpiece) to a trippy forced-perspective cell, production designer Edward Thomas has a field day filling them with intricate details, giving each its own challenging identity. Director Adam Robitel (INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY) keeps the camera mobile and the shots as varied as these habitats, eliciting a certain amount of concern over who will survive them and how. The characters themselves, on the other hand, build little rooting interest, none of them exhibiting much personality beyond those initial defining traits and a couple of them breaking the tension with the kind of wisecracks that real people would likely never use in such a perilous situation. The actors, particularly Labine and Woll, do their best to make their roles personable and sympathetic, though it doesn’t help that the most (mildly) interesting of them are out of the picture by around the hour mark.

The key issue with ESCAPE ROOM, though, is that the basics have all been done many times before. Given the visual hints and flashbacks scattered through the opening act (not to mention the tell-all trailer), it comes as no surprise that, once again, the protagonists’ current predicament is linked to common past trauma that will be revealed in a crucial turning-point scene. The ultimate endgame behind it is also no surprise, and comes with the same question that dogged the SAW films, i.e. who would have the wherewithal to stage such an elaborate and expensive death trap. But then, all plausibility flies out the window in the last 15 minutes, during a series of endings that are each more absurd than the previous one. The final scenes are a clear setup for a sequel, but serve only to diminish the appeal of the movie at hand.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.