Review: 'Escape Room' is a surprisingly fresh take on a bland premise

Escape Room

Setting a thriller around escape rooms is a so-trendy-it-hurts premise. The bluntly titled Escape Room pulls off being a better than average movie anyway. There’s been a tendency for studios to drop movies in the usually desolate months of January and February to pick up crowds just looking for something to watch. Every now and then, one of these movies is a sleeper hit or a nice surprise. Escape Room is the latter, with a clever overall approach that leans heavily on dramatizing the elements of escape rooms as creative puzzle-solving experiences as well as the social dynamics they generate. Everything is taken to an extreme but it’s logical enough of an extension that it mostly works, even if it feels obvious at times. Those familiar with escape rooms will recognize the core elements and the movie is likely to bring in a fresh wave of curious patrons.

A group of strangers are brought together to play a cutting edge escape room. It turns out the rooms are more than they appear, forcing the players to not only survive but figure out why they were selected and what’s really going on. The mystery itself is solid but likely won’t blow anyone’s mind. When all is revealed, the delivery leans a bit too heavy on exposition to be fully effective. This is somewhat mitigated by the movie’s ending, which is a bit of clumsy fun.

Though marketed as a horror movie, Escape Room is fairly light on scares. The script by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik focuses on characters first and foremost, attempting to sell the danger and stunts by making you care about the cast. They are mostly successful, helped out by director Adam Robitel’s sense of balance with the special effects. Even though audiences know what they’re watching was filmed on a sound-stage, most of the “scares” are visceral enough to elicit a gasp or a wince.

Even the occasionally clunky dialogue goes beyond stock lines and reactions and feels rooted in character. Escape Room also deserves points for representation, with its cast being diverse in their backgrounds and walks of life. The acting is good overall, but the breakout is Deborah Ann Woll, who has appeared mostly on TV shows. In Escape Room she brings a physicality and presence that’s a change of pace from her usual characters, indicating that she might be headed for some more action-heavy roles in the future. Canadian treasure Tyler Labine is also immediately like-able as Mike, an affable “everydad”. Taylor Russel is also best known for TV and stands out here with a character that is usually relegated to the sidelines rather than taking a central role. The more obvious leader characters are consistently upstaged by Russel’s quiet math geek. There’s a strong embrace for academic nerdiness in this movie, though some will feel that it comes at the price of a few too many dismissive “gamer” jokes.

In other thrillers with competitive and survival elements, a sort of faux-Darwinist, reality-TV competitive ethos is usually mined for character tension and drama. There are shades of that in one character, but they aren’t allowed to dominate the movie or take over the narrative, keeping it contained in characterization. This makes it less a plot device and more a function of social dynamics, which seems like an interesting take on well-worn material. Escape Room’s focus is more on compassion and support in a dire situation designed expressly to trigger past traumas.

Having a group of people who tend more toward cooperation than conflict makes it easier to care about and root for them, but may come at a cost in terms of tension. Most movies like this lean on character tension a lot more. They do bicker, compete, and struggle with each other but it’s late in the movie when this really comes to a head and it plays against expectations to an extent anyway. Just as it’s hard to say whether the character dynamics are a misfire or an intentional subversion of expectations, mileage will vary on whether the role trauma plays in the story will be considered shallow or refreshing.

A January movie about a trend (that might turn out to be a fad) doesn’t seem like a recipe for a successful movie. There’s a lot of love for escape rooms here, which makes a big difference in giving the movie a sense of authenticity that can support its excesses. At the end of the day, it’s still going to be the characters that make this movie more memorable than it had any right to be. Audiences may be surprised by how, in a not so scary movie, they become afraid of what might happen to these people as the walls close in on them.