What can be more fun than being many indecipherable clues away from freedom, stuck in the company of people who are hindering rather than helping, and your brain hurting with the effort? Like all puzzles, such a situation is infuriating in direct proportion to your ability to pick up on little details and reach a solution. Nothing is more satisfying than figuring something out, but how would you perform if the room was also trying to kill you?
This is the Page One Premise of Escape Room and the movie does its best work when letting rip with its killer concept. Introduce a whole bunch of characters. Stick them in lethal trap rooms. Figure out elaborate puzzles. Death and delight ensues. Deathtraps are all well and good but if we care nothing for the dispatched victims then the result is just base level voyeurism. Escape Room does a commendable job of putting the work in so that our doomed gang of thinkers are fleshed out people before running the risk of becoming fleshed off corpses.
Lured with mysterious puzzle cubes received in the mail, six people figure out clues that lead them to a nondescript office building with the promise of a large cash sum if they succeed. Jason is an arrogant big money trader; Zoey a quiet and methodical student; Danny is an escape room veteran; Amanda is an actual veteran of the U.S. Army; Mike is a burly but cheerful truck driver, and Ben is stuck in a dead-end retail job where he isn’t even allowed in front of shop. Once things become inarguably lethal it is the dynamic between these characters that keeps the tension high.
With a good cast to care about in place, Escape Room delights in devilish and inventive puzzles that present with a ticking clock of terror. Be it a room that inexorably heats up to unbearable temperatures, an upside-down bar themed room with a periodically collapsing ‘floor’, or a cosy little study that slowly becomes much more little and much less cosy, Escape Room presents interesting problems and solutions, yet leaves you keen for the next barely survivable scenario.
Such a set-up is pure genre of course. The Saw franchise has shown that it’s possible to endlessly churn out death after death when it comes to clever traps and Escape Room clearly had eyes on sequels (Escape Room: Tournament of Champions was released in July 2021). Doing so unfortunately creates a sense that the movie is holding itself back. As the rooms our dwindling cast escape from contain more and more aspects of their personal demons, it is clear that they haven’t been chosen at random to compete. Exploring the weakness of each character based on their slowly revealed secrets gives them more flavour, but the logic for doing so is inevitably disappointing.
As the credits roll with vagaries of a big monies conspiracy that could fuel a stream of Escape Room films the taste left behind is that doing so would bring quickly diminishing returns. It was the perfectly balanced cast in this movie that glued amusingly nonsensical plot logistics together. Even if the last 10 minutes scramble to secure a springboard for “More Of The Same Please”, Escape Room feels at its most satisfying when having fun with the core concept.
Chuck some interesting people in a clever room. Get clever room to be life-threatening in interesting ways. Have them barely escape with a satisfying use of smarts. And again. And again. That Escape Room tries to keep a twitching finger in the sequel pie is understandable but that pie is always going to be duller than the imminent bloodbath trying to detach the finger. Escape Room is a great movie for throwing popcorn at your open mouth and wincing in glee as the action unfolds. Just don’t think too hard about the clean up afterwards.
Words by Mike Record