by Ken Bakely
There’s a propulsive silliness to the very idea of Adam Robitel’s Escape Room, a movie about, well, escape rooms designed to actually kill you. It takes one of the more elaborate recreational fads of the decade and puts a murderous spin on them; it’s a horror film rooted what sounds like a pitch for a comedy sketch. But there’s no tongue-in-cheek humor or winking in the execution. Everything’s played serious from the start, as Robitel, working from a script by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik, plunges full-throttle into each elaborate setpiece and wild twist. The result is a movie that’s a beautiful machine of absurdity, but one that keeps its enjoyment value high with its high-strung production values and disinterest in acute self-awareness. Simply put, this is probably the best movie that could have ever been made about its subject, which is to the detriment of the two or three sequels that this film will likely produce. It’s mechanistic in its ruthless efficiency, as if it were worried that it might evaporate into thin air upon viewing. And perhaps it might, and perhaps that might be closer to its perceived value than one might be willing to admit, but if all January horror films featured a precisely assembled a package of characters, personified by shallow pop psychology, navigating through a maze of lethal environments as creatively conceived and implemented as this movie’s, then we’d be in a far more interesting world.
Indeed, it’s almost astounding how little pretense or buildup exists in the film’s setup: six strangers – a nervous college student (Taylor Russell), a greed-is-good-style businessman (Jay Ellis), a stoner stockboy (Logan Miller), a resolute veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a talkative, self-professed escape room expert (Nik Dodani), and a blue-collar truck driver (Tyler Labine) – receive cryptic invitations to a new escape room location. The events begin immediately upon entrance, as the facility’s “lobby” turns out to set the tone for the dangerous proceedings. The room begins heating rapidly, and the group only just finds a way out before the space is burned to a crisp. Later rooms are similarly elaborate, including ones modeled after an upside-down bar, a frozen lake, and an abandoned hospital room. But their survival of the first room was a combination of skill and luck, and not everyone will be able to reap the benefits of both qualities as they navigate through a vast series of challenges. Robitel and company play all of this with increasingly ecstatic energy, ensuring that even as exposition and the plot developments enter increasingly ludicrous heights – the discovery of the malevolent powers that run the escape room, and the reason they chose these specific contestants, is a lot to take in – our investment in the material remains, thanks to committed performances, sharp direction, and impeccable visual flair.
This is a wackily imagined, soldily made movie, and it’s in the juxtaposition of the simple pleasures from the former and the accomplished suspense from the latter that makes this as fun to watch as it is. There is a deep skill required to making such films, and much of the success comes in never, ever conveying the notion that anyone is taking anything for granted. As long as the movie believes that it could happen, the audience’s suspension of disbelief moves that much higher, and Escape Room pretty much believes that anything could happen. It respects us as viewers on that level, and its thrills and scripting earn their respective reactions and payoffs with an admirable earnestness. Proclaiming “What you see is what you get” is a simplistic way to describe a film as genuinely effective as this one, but it plays the horror hits with great fervor. Yes, the sequel hook is groan-worthy, and we’re well aware that the plausibility of this universe in relation to our own won’t ever be addressed. However, Robitel scores points for his efforts in not striving for specific comparisons to other works (of which there are many that this movie could be compared to), and creating a familiar mythology that we still find interesting. This is a deft bit of entertainment, confident in the knowledge of how much you know about its modus operandi going in, and seeking to impress with just how well it can perform those well-worn beats.