I’ve heard from several people that Escape Room seems to just be a PG-13 version of the very-much R-rated Saw movies. Honestly, I thought the same thing after watching the trailer, which may have been the real draw for me to see it. The suspense and twists in Saw are fantastic. But I could do without the all-too-realistic gore at this stage in my life.
Escape Room starts off in medias res, with one of our leads, Ben (Logan Miller), alone in a Clue-like library which is collapsing onto itself. Things are off to a good start for the audience, as this sequence is suspenseful and has an artful aesthetic.
We go back a few days to the events leading up to our three de facto protagonists receiving their mysteriously anonymous invitation to an escape room in Chicago. There, they meet three others who we end up learning a bit about over the course of the film. They are all told that they will receive $10,000 for making it all the way through the puzzle. Other than that, there’s still a mystery surrounding who sent out the invitations and why he or she chose these six people. We know something is up, but the fun part is figuring it out.
What happens next mainly revolves mainly around Ben and two others: Zoey and Jason. Zoey, played by Taylor Russell, is a very shy college student. It’s implied that she’s some sort of genius and we get the idea that she’s our true main character (also, her face is on the poster for the film). Russell doesn’t completely convince us that she’s comfortable playing the timid role, but we like her enough to root for her. Jason (Jay Ellis) is some sort of business magnate. Early on, we can tell he’s one of those archetypal cut-throat entrepreneurs, and the movie has no qualms about throwing all appropriate stereotypes our way. But don’t worry, there are still some surprises pertaining to this that won’t be spoiled here.
If you’re unfamiliar with escape rooms, they are pretty self-explanatory. In real life, an escape room is a game where people usually pay money to get trapped inside an actual room and use clues to find a way out before the clock hits zero. If they don’t figure it out, they lose, and can go home knowing that it was all fake. In this movie, however, the characters soon learn that the consequences for losing are very real and they can actually die.
Certain overarching twists in Escape Room aren’t terribly difficult to figure out. If we’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies, we can probably guess specific motives or even telegraph some plot points, but there are so many moving parts that there’s always something to keep us engaged. For instance, the puzzles themselves aren’t predictable. And instead of director Adam Robitel only giving us clues that we can’t see, he hides certain things in plain sight so that we could potentially figure things out if we wanted to exert that much effort.
And what about the rooms themselves? There are about a half dozen, each unique in their own right, utilizing a different hook or theme each time. We get one room where the characters find themselves in a giant oven. Another is an upside down pool hall with a floor that breaks away piece-by-piece, musical chairs-style. The rooms are all unique and well-crafted, but I do think the penultimate room could have been slightly better. It has an interesting catch, but the situation feels almost too contrived. Nonetheless, it was a necessary path to take to get to the end result.
Escape Room doesn’t feel like its PG-13 rating robs us of anything. If nothing else, that “restriction” allows itself to be more fun than dark, not needing the gore to make the actions gripping. We also don’t feel like we’re missing what’s being held back–or that there’s anything held back in the first place.
As we watch this movie, perhaps we’ll think that it can’t possibly be this good, so inevitably that the moment of truth will come down to the final act. How will the story end and will it be satisfying? Obviously, I won’t spoil anything by answering the former, but to the latter, I wouldn’t be in the minority by saying “yes”. We don’t get some artsy finish that leaves us wanting more, but we also don’t get anything wrapped up in a bow, either. The movie is so much fun it never really gives us an opportunity to mentally check out. The dialogue is deceptively clever, and we get some pretty good characters. The acting is subpar, but good acting is usually just a cherry on top for these kinds of films anyway.
Escape Room may indeed be a Saw movie for a younger audience, but it never relies solely on that notion. Instead giving us so much more, while also taking notes from the Saw series with knowing certain elements aren’t as important as others (e.g. acting skills versus brisk narrative, or character depth versus character investment). Whatever it is, this film knows what it wants to do and properly executes that to make a thoroughly enjoyable movie containing puzzle after puzzle. Proof that you can love an imperfect movie just as much–if not more than–a perfect one. I can’t remember the last time I had this good of a time at the theater. Maybe I’m just a sucker for suspense. Or maybe I’m just a fan of having fun watching a movie.
Originally published on January 11, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/escape-room-2019/