Escape rooms. Everyone loves them – well, most people do. People are placed into a series of rooms with clues that lead to more to clues that eventually lead into victory and escape from the room. While it has its roots in pop culture fare, ranging from the malevolent Saw franchise in which horrible people do horrible things to each other to survive the whims of a psychopath, to the light-hearted and whimsical Crystal Maze television series wherein a group of workmates or BFFs try to solve a variety of locked-room puzzles to eventually try and win a holiday, the idea of being trapped in a room and wanting to escape has always been a thrilling subject.
Enter Escape Room. Not to be confused with the 2017 film of the same name; a low-budget affair with solid, sharp chemistry between the five leads but a deep-baked cynicism and too many red herrings, loose ends, and a damp squib of an ending at its core).
Pitched initially as ‘Saw but without the torture porn’, this PG-13 excursion sees a sextet of wannabe puzzle solvers brought into the offices of a mysterious corporation where they soon find the doors barred and their time to escape the increasingly dangerous series of traps already underway. It’s certainly an enjoyable conceit and one that has a lot of mileage in it, perhaps more than a B-movie offering like this should – but then again who can resist a puzzle?
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The film has a core of pleasingly likable performances as the would-be victims of the organisation’s machinations to anchor the film and give it the semblance of an emotional core. This film’s pack of plucky victims include painfully shy genius Zoey (Taylor Russell), downtrodden clerk Ben (Logan Miller), Tyler Labine’s Middle-American everyman Mike, video game nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), and Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll, easily the biggest name here, as Amanda, a war vet dealing with PTSD flashbacks.
The only sore thumb here is Jay Ellis as Jason, a high powered broker with control issues who comes across as cocky and competitive amidst this group of reasonably friendly faces. Fortunately, there’s still more than enough chemistry and banter between our protagonists to make them fun and engaging, and the sarcastic humour that’s peppered throughout Escape Room definitely lifts into more escapist – if still dark and definitely a thriller – territory.
The setpieces are gorgeously constructed and tease at a grander mystery that the film explores in its final third. The contestants battle a rapidly incinerating office, an icy cabin that turns deadly, and even an upside-down dive bar which proves that the concept of dancing on the ceiling has never been so dangerous. Each of these sequences are well-constructed and enjoyable as our heroes try to work their way through them, Indiana Jones-style, succeeding and failing in equal measure, and if the actual puzzles themselves are easy enough (the intense Fermat’s Room this ain’t), it doesn’t detract too much from the glee of watching other people have a go with varied results.
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Escape Room even manages to hint at a grander scheme beyond making a group of relative innocents suffer and earn their freedom. The twist of sorts in the film’s second act adds a relatively interesting spin onto why this group of strangers has been brought together. Unfortunately, this is let down by the finale which plays too much of its hand in setting up a series of elaborate twists and a potential sequel involving the insidious Minos Corporation, rather than resolving the fates of any of its surviving characters.
Escape Room is far from being the best horror of the year, and will have its fair share of detractors; however, what it does offer is a cluster of amiable leads, an interesting mystery or two with the potential for a second outing down the line, and the kind of popcorn entertainment that always proves so satisfying on a Friday evening, even if it does leave you looking at the next team away day idea of an escape room a little more cautiously…
Escape Room is now on general release in UK cinemas.