A new year a new review format for Cinema Spotlight. In 2018 I wanted to try something a little more expansive to explore the good and bad of movies and make my reviews more organized. My goal for 2019 however it to change things up to make my reviews more readable and concise so with my first review of the new year I’m going to bring a more casual style format to Cinema Spotlight with a new template that I hope will improve how I go about reviewing films going forward.
That said it’s time to get to my first review of 2019. A lot of times a gimmick film will be hit or miss, especially if the film takes too long to get off the ground before the gimmick is outdated. We’ve learned through movies like “Slender Man” that filmmakers need to pounce on a property or idea as fast as possible or else risk that concept losing its relevance before the film even hits the big screen. The first major release of 2019, “Escape Room”, avoids this problem and has been released right in the peak of popularity for escape rooms across the world. The idea of being trapped in a room where you need to figure out a puzzle to escape lends itself perfectly to the thriller and horror genres, so you’d think this would be a hard idea to screw up right? Well let’s see just how well this new feature captures the spirit of its premise. This is my review of “Escape Room”.
“Escape Room” focuses on a group of six individuals from different walks of life who have been invited to partake in the titular game for a cash prize. The group is comprised of shy physics student Zoey (Taylor Russell), stock boy Ben (Logan Miller), stockbroker Jason (Jay Ellis), talkative former miner Mike (Tyler Labine), war veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) and escape-room expert Danny (Nik Dodani). When their game begins the group discovers that the challenges are much more real than they expected and soon they learn that breaking the rules or failing the challenges can prove to be fatal. With only one winner allowed, the competitors must work together to move further through the game as they unravel a larger conspiracy that ties them all together.
What’s cool about “Escape Room” is that contrary to other horror thrillers of its kind I actually found myself invested in this cast. Each character is given their own backstory and personality which plays into the larger conspiracy of the game and allows the actors to stand out and show their individual ranges. Pretty much every performer pulls off their characters nicely with some being more sympathetic than others. While Jay Ellis’ Jason is obviously more self-centered and egotistic, Taylor Russell’s Zoey, truly the main focus of much of the film, is the more logical and cooler headed one. Logan Miller’s Ben is the out-of-place loser who is more annoying and arrogant than helpful while Deborah Ann Woll’s former soldier Amanda is the muscle whose past also gives her a delicate mind cursed with PTSD. Tyler Labine provides the comic relief as Mike and Nik Dodani is the token competitor who serves to update the rest of the cast on how to properly play the game. As their fates were revealed I found myself legitimately concerned for the consequences of losing their challenges and feeling sorry for those who meet their doom. This film is, by concept, very reminiscent of features like “Saw” but “Escape Room” manages to make you feel for each person and want them to survive rather than wanting to see them tortured. It’s also gives a neat “what would I do” perspective to the experience as well. “Escape Room” provides us with a fun cast of characters we can enjoy who all add something to the larger narrative and bring talents to the table that are essential to making it through certain parts of the game. The performers are surprisingly invested which makes the film as a whole that much more fun and easy to enjoy.
While “Escape Room” doesn’t completely own its premise I heavily enjoyed what it had to offer. The games these people have to play and the puzzles they need to solve feel inspired and well thought out. The upside-down billiard room is a neat set piece and the shrinking reading room proves to be one of the highlight challenges offered in the narrative. “Escape Room” feels like an elaborate haunted house that is brought to life before our eyes and while there are some pretty ridiculous aspects mixed in, such as the over-the-top winter room, it was pretty cool to see how almost everything fit into place when we finally learn what connects all the players together. On top of that I just found the experience to be epic and thrilling. I never knew who was going to survive or die and how they were going to meet their end despite the trailer giving away a few spoilers. I was always invested in what would happen next, why it happened and how it happened, and I held my breath several times hoping a character would make it out. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t adding a nice layer of suspense despite the opening sequence spoiling much of the film for me. For a thriller with a gimmick, “Escape Room” does own it’s concept well even if it doesn’t go all in.
On the other hand, “Escape Room” does do something that always annoys me about gimmick films by ditching its premise for a more ridiculous conclusion that pushes things a little too far. The “Saw” franchise did this, the “Paranormal Activity” sequels did this, and while they all do it differently it’s still frustrating to see a promising idea spoiled by a subpar conclusion that tries to up the ante but only pushes the narrative into ridiculous territory. The final moments of the film kind of brings things back to where they need to be but that is once again spoiled by a twist ending that focuses more on the promise of a sequel than cashing in on the potential of the idea. Another horrible cliché I hate is that the film starts at the beginning. The experience begins showing us where the game we’re about to see ends up and while the story doesn’t end where hinted it still spoils a lot of the fun when we already know who will die and who will survive. I found myself more accepting of this approach by the end but when you combine the over the top finale with and introduction that spoils the final result the core of “Escape Room” becomes a little less fun and dramatic and more about seeing how everything transpires. It waters down the thrill of who will live and who will not and thus leans more on how they perish than whether or not anyone survives.
A few other issues might impact how much people can enjoy “Escape Room” even if they don’t actually hurt the final product. There is one sequence that involves players being thrown into an illusion room with flashing lights and odd imagery that makes this movie a bit of a literal headache for anyone affected by epilepsy. I mean the whole point of this scene is to disorient both the characters and the viewers so it’s not really a problem as much as it is a sort of necessary evil. I also felt like the PG-13 rating holds the movie back a bit and I’m mixed on whether or not this actually makes the film better. On one hand it makes the deaths less bloody and more family friendly, or as family friendly and tasteful as a horror movie of this kind can be. On the other hand the story does make up for the lack of literal bloodshed by giving us other methods of torturing the players, including hypothermia, extreme heat, electric shock and other cringe-worthy elements that make the film satisfyingly brutal in its own way. So while neither of these issues are really horrible, deteriorating aspects of the film they may impact how much some viewers are able to enjoy the experience.
In conclusion, “Escape Room” really has no business being as fun or as good as it is for a gimmicky horror thriller, especially from director Adam Robitel who brought us the horrendously boring “Insidious: The Last Key” this time last year. But, surprisingly “Escape Room” offers a fun ride filled with inspired set pieces and well established and developed characters who are easy to invest in and cheer for. I had fun with it, even though it didn’t completely cash in on its concept by the end of it all. In some ways I even enjoyed it more than the “Saw” films, a franchise that is among my favorites in the horror genre, despite “Escape Room” being much more tame. While it might be difficult for some to get past the PG-13 limitations, for me “Escape Room” proved to be an exciting, suspenseful and fun example of how these trap and game-themed horror movies can work and find substance even without pandering to the body horror and torture porn ideas that gave birth to this immersive subgenre. In the end, while it’s not revolutionary or perfect “Escape Room” rises above its familiarity and it’s own attempts at franchise building to give viewers a delightfully thrilling experience fittingly inspired by a real life game that has taken the world by storm.