Movie Details & Credits
|Columbia Pictures | Release Date: January 4, 2019|
The weird movie season gets off to a pretty good start with Escape Room, a modest thriller that, within the limits of its aspiration, does what it sets out to do: It makes audiences nervous. No, it doesn’t manage that from beginning to end, but it does do it some of the time; when it’s not making us nervous, it at least keeps us interested. It’s pretty good, which might sound like faint praise, but for a movie like this, pretty good is the brass ring.
It has an odd opening that becomes better in retrospect, but in the moment seems like odd strategy: We see an ornate room, in the style of the 19th century. And then a young man falls through the ceiling, frantic, trying to escape the room, as the walls begin to close in. To avoid being crushed, he has to solve a sequence of puzzles, but while he runs around, frantic and desperate, we sit unmoved. We don’t know the guy. The movie has just started. We have no reason to care what happens to him.
Soon, we catch on that this pre-credits sequence is actually a flash-forward to something that will happen later in the movie. And still later, we realize that our reaction to the opening scene — distant and unmoved — is probably what director Adam Robitel intended. Later, we’ll care, but in the beginning, it’s enough for us to witness this as an extreme, absurd spectacle.
The story of Escape Room is intended to take advantage of the popularity of real-life escape rooms, problem-solving games in which players are put inside locked rooms and must piece together clues in order to get out. In the movie, a group of disparate strangers is invited to a free escape-room adventure, with the lure of a possible $10,000 prize. So, they all show up and soon wish they hadn’t.
Why these people? Why is this happening? What do they have in common? All is revealed, eventually, and for once, the answers are convincing and satisfying. In the meantime, the movie rolls out a series of imaginatively conceived horrors. In each case, the characters are introduced into an environment that seems benign but then turns lethal. The specifics are best left to be discovered in the watching, but a scene in an empty bar, in which the floor keeps giving way to a 20-story drop, is particularly effective.
There are no movie stars in the cast, though some of the actors have major TV credits, and they mesh well as an ensemble. Jay Ellis (HBO‘s Insecure) plays a ruthless, high-powered salesman; Deborah Ann Woll is utterly believable as an Iraq War veteran; and Taylor Russell brings us into her stillness with her restrained and endearing performance as a shy scientific genius. Also worthy of note is the film’s production designer, Edward Thomas. It’s one thing for the screenwriters to devise these perilous situations, but nearly as much of their effectiveness derives from their precise realization in physical terms.
All that said, Escape Room is an amusement park ride. It has no reason for being beyond that base-level kick, and it doesn’t, as they say, transcend the genre. But there’s something to be said for amusement park rides. People like them for good reason.