In the middle section of Escape Room, I was surprised at how much fun I was having. One would think that watching fictional characters solve puzzles wouldn’t be too enjoyable, but Adam Robitel’s thriller is fleet-footed with distinct characters in a unique situation. In its best moments, Escape Room feels like a PG-13 mashup of Cube and Saw without the need to rely on gore to get the audience excited. But as the game wears on and the larger picture becomes clear, Escape Room becomes trapped by conventions and a need to copy other movies rather than invoking them. In its desperation to become A FRANCHISE, Escape Room loses sight of its greatest strengths.
Zoey (Taylor Russell), Jason (Jay Ellis), Ben (Logan Miller), Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Mike (Tyler Labine), and Danny (Nik Dodani) are strangers all having issues in their personal lives, but all end up getting invited to an Escape Room. Danny, the Escape Room aficionado, explains the concept to the others (and those unfamiliar in the audience)—you have to solve clues to find a way out of the room. The twist here, as the players discover, is that the rooms are deadly and that someone has played a very long game to get these six specific people fighting for their lives. Realizing that this isn’t the tame recreational experience they’d been lured to believe, the players must find a way out of the escape room to survive.
Although it has a bit of a slow start, once the game begins, Robitel is adept at slowly ratcheting up the tension as the players try to escape various rooms before these rooms kill them with traps and tricks. What should feel hackneyed and forced eventually finds an alluring rhythm so that we feel we’re playing right alongside the main characters. It’s not so much that we’re able to solve the room ahead of them, but rather we feel the pressure of the ticking clock and the sadistic stakes. However, because of its PG-13 rating, Escape Room can’t rely on gore or violence. Rather than being adrift without these fallbacks, Robitel rises to the occasion to make a solid date night movie for teenagers.
However, the script can’t sustain the premise as the story wears on. The rooms feel less creative and the larger reveals come off as derivative. Escape Room has chances to blaze its own trail and find ways to surprise the audience without being overly grim (a tone that doesn’t really fit with the PG-13 rating). Instead, the plot starts to bend over backwards to try and copy Saw and The Game, losing its own personality in the process. Those films ultimately rest on sadism and conspiracy, respectively, and for a large chunk of its runtime, Escape Room is about collaboration and solving puzzles. It may not be much, but it’s more entertaining than expected and feels like something fresh rather than a tame hodgepodge of other movies.
Escape Room clearly has its eye on becoming a series, and that’s a shame because the least interesting thing about it as any overarching story that would connect sequels and prequels. Where this film shines is in gathering six characters from different backgrounds, and then forcing them into a survival situation without the sadism or the cruelty a hard-R horror film might inflict. When it tries to be its own thing, Escape Room is remarkably liberating and exciting. When it tries to be other franchises, it’s trapped.