Escape Room (2019)

JANUARY 10, 2019


If I was operating on a normal schedule, I would have seen/reviewed Escape Room on its opening day (perhaps the Thursday night before), as seeing genre films on opening day is one of the only HMAD traditions I still uphold. But ironically, I was out of town for a weekend bachelor party that included doing an actual escape room on Friday, so between traveling and wanting to spend time with my family on Thursday night I just couldn't make it happen, and had to wait for an opportune moment during the week. Weirder still, there's a moment in the movie where a character looks at a newspaper headline saying that five people died in a fire - it has nothing to do with the movie, but in real life, on the day the movie opened, five girls actually DID die in a fire that broke out in the escape room they were doing. So that's kinda freaky, and if I went to the movie earlier I wouldn't have thought anything about it.

Odder still, the escape room I was playing in real life was based on the Saw films, which this movie occasionally feels like. The characters arrive on their own freewill, but it's still kind of the same deal as Saw II and V (and, uh, Jigsaw) - a group of people who don't know each other are trapped in a building and need to complete twisted tasks engineered by an unseen madman, and making a mistake means you die. The PG-13 rating obviously keeps it from ever being as violent/gory as those films could get, but it's still easy to be reminded of that series from time to time, and not in a ripoff way - it's actually kind of part of its appeal, reminding me of when that series was king and still retained its clever appeal. There are no major twists in this one, but the ticking clock scenarios that usually reduce the cast by one before they move on to a new challenge makes it feel like a Saw that doesn't require a notebook to keep up with who's who and when things take place. So a more successful Jigsaw, I guess.

But the film's primary appeal is that the writers clearly ran through some escape rooms before sitting down to hammer out their screenplay, giving it a genuine feeling that a number of game-driven movies often lack. Video game movies (that is, movies *about* video games, not Tomb Raider or whatever) are the worst offender - the games the characters play often bear no resemblance to a game anyone would actually play, suggesting the writers never bothered to check if they came off as genuine. But here, even if the setup is unlike anything in the real world (people are invited to the room to play with strangers - it's almost exclusively something one does with their friends), the puzzles themselves are 100% in line with what I myself have experienced in these things*, which added immensely to the proceedings.

In fact, the movie was at its best when combining danger with their attempts to solve a standard puzzle. The trailers highlight what's probably the best overall sequence, where the group is trapped in an upside down room - as the floor gives way, they have to figure out a four digit code for a safe that contains the key that will allow them to get to the next room. Apart from the whole "the floor is disappearing and can send you plummeting to your death" element, it's a puzzle that anyone who has ever done an escape room will recognize - the group has to scour the room for clues that will produce the necessary code (in this case, it matches up to the color/number of billiard balls that are glued to the table above them), with the clock ticking down and the ever-present "we have the numbers but the wrong order" hiccup that I've run into nearly every time I've done a room.

Unfortunately, they occasionally betray this realism with some stuff that would never fly in a real room, like when their key is frozen in the center of a giant ice cube, so they have to melt it with their bare hands. The room had plenty of other dangers (the cold temperature and cracking ice), so I wish the solution involved something more traditional i.e. "brainier" rather than be something that just adds to their risk. Later in the movie they get even more unfamiliar, but it's explained away with "they did their research, they know what we can handle!" so solutions require them to know sign language and things like that. And by that point I was pretty much on board and willing to forgive, but still - I would have loved if they kept the puzzles/solutions in line with reality while simply increasing the risk of the danger around them.

Speaking of the danger (and this is kind of a spoiler, so skip to next paragraph if you want to go in blind-ish), it's the rare instance of a PG-13 rating actually kind of helping a genre movie rather than hurt it. If it was rated R, I'm sure we'd see all the horrific details when our characters got offed, but instead it's usually left pretty vague - which got me wondering for a while if it was all a game after all and no one was really being killed (a la April Fools Day). The first time it becomes 100% clear that these folks are dying is when it's actually from the hand of another player (not in a villain way, it's a fight to the death per the game's rules), so it kind of works as much of a shock to us as it is to the person who just took another life, an element we'd be denied if they were going the Saw (or Cube, respect) route and letting us see the gruesome outcomes.

Another smart thing is that we only meet three of the six players before they all arrive for the game, which makes us identify more with them and mistrust the others, because if Saw II or Cube taught us anything it's that there's usually a mole in there to make sure things are going smoothly. I won't tell you if that's the case here, but the approach keeps us on our toes with regards to that and also the order in which people exit the film. The trailers thankfully stuck primarily to the first couple rooms where everyone was alive, so it's a legit surprise when this or that person is removed from the proceedings. It's a good mix of actors too; you might recognize them from this or that thing (for horror fans, Deborah Ann Woll from True Blood and Tyler "Dale" Labine being the most obvious), but there isn't a clear "star" that overshadows everyone else - it's a true ensemble from start to finish. That said, it's a shame they had to blow part of the mystery with the ever awful flash forward opening, which shows us one character in a room by themselves, rendering their "in danger" scenes throughout the film anticlimactic. It doesn't take too long to get going (especially since we only see three of the characters prior) so I'm not sure why they thought this was necessary, but it's mostly forgivable thanks to the other stuff that managed to surprise.

My only other quibble is that the ending drags. Obviously I can't get into details, but at a certain point it seems like we're watching the sequel to the film as opposed to the natural conclusion to this one, followed by a lengthy teaser for where the next room might be held - it's a bit much, in a movie that's already longer than average as is. Think of Cube, how it ended so perfectly with the guy walking out into the unknown - this could have done something similar, but instead it relieves us of the ambiguity, and then keeps going on and on for good measure. So it loses some of its energy, unnecessarily, with the only saving grace being that the film's surprising success (it made $5-6m more than it was expected to over the weekend) means we will probably get a sequel and this stuff will at least not be in vain.

Other than that, it's a solidly entertaining movie that makes the most of its concept and doesn't get bogged down in too much "how is this all possible" nonsense that would just kill the fun. It's more of a thriller than a horror film, and I think that works in its favor - the focus is always on the game itself and occasionally even lets you solve the puzzle along with the characters (I figured out one before them!), giving the film a minor interactive feel that the likes of Saw can never accomplish ("Audience members are invited to chop off their own fingers along with the characters on screen!"). This sort of thing makes up for its occasional blunders, and I hope they get the sequel to work out the kinks. In summary: it might be released in January, but it's not a "January movie"!

What say you?

*The Saw one has seven rooms and if you fail one you get to move on. We ended up beating five of the seven, which is apparently very good as we were told the average group only beats one or two! I believe it was the seventh room I have done over the past few years, so I'm not an expert by any means but I've done enough to realize that the people who make these things really love 3 or 4 digit combinations.


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