If nothing else, Escape Room deserves a modicum of credit for having possibly the laziest gimmick ever to try and pass itself off as a gimmick. If you hadn’t heard (possibly because you don’t have any shopping malls with lots of large vacant spaces in your area) an escape room is a game where you’re locked in a fake room suggesting some kind of fantasy scenario and have to escape by solving a puzzle suggested by clues hidden around the room itself. In most variations you will pretend die or suffer some other imaginary consequence if you don’t escape in time. The supposed hook of Escape Room the film (formerly called The Maze, it had apparently been sitting on the shelf for a year or two) is that the players discover that the pretend murder traps are … actual murder traps.
This isn’t done in some particularly ironic, funny or clever way, though. It’s not “Oh no! We didn’t beat the Ancient Greece Room so now The Medusa is gonna turn us to stone!” and everybody laughs because that’s silly and then they stop laughing when the room dumps cement on them. The death traps in Escape Room don’t rise above the level of “The rules said the room was going to fill up with fire … and now it’s filled up with fire. Doh!”
On the one hand, the film hardly feels worth getting “mad” about. It’s just a disposable PG-13 thriller being dumped out into the January dead zone because nothing else new is playing so maybe it might catch on for the weekend before Glass hits. But I would still feel remiss to not at least mention the obnoxious audacity of selling a film on a plot twist THAT IS NOT, IN FACT, A TWIST! THAT IS IN POINT OF FACT LITERALLY THE OPPOSITE OF A PLOT TWIST — IT’S AN UN-TWIST! A PLOT-STRAIGHTENING. It’s akin to pitching a horror movie called Paintball with the premise of “What if when you got hit by the paint it actually wounded you!!??” Well, for one, the sole novel aspect of the premise would be gone. That’s just a normal gun fight.
But, in any case, that’s the film. The whole thing. The entire premise. And if upon hearing you think you can plot the entire piece out in your head based on having seen one or two of the Saw movies and maybe Cube before? Well… so did I and it turned out I was mostly wrong but only because I kept giving Escape Room too much credit no matter how low my expectations plummeted. I kept second-guessing my way to a more interesting hypothetical movie, mostly by assuming that various instances of clunky dialogue, bad writing, inexplicable directorial and editing decisions, super obvious continuity problems, bizarrely inconsistent expectations of suspension of disbelief, and just all-around terrible filmmaking choices were so wrongheaded they MUST actually be setups for plot twists and character reveals to come. But they never were.
Everything is pretty much exactly what it looks like. Every character is exactly who they appear to be. If you tried to imagine the most boring, unsatisfying, pointless, generic answer to “what’s going on and who’s responsible?” for Escape Room to arrive at, you’d still be impressed that what they came up with is so much worse.
On top of everything else, it’s also a shockingly lazy piece of work. One might assume that the only reason to make a “killer escape room” movie would be because you’d thought up between 70 and 90 minutes worth of gags where the elaborate brain teaser puzzles that are the whole point of the real-life games could be put to lethal ends. But Escape Room jumps into the realm of preposterously high-tech hologram projections and sci-fi virtualization as early as its second “room.” That ends up feeling like the most pointless cheat of its own premise possible only until a subsequent sequence is built around characters being affected with mind-altering drugs. In other words, the film can’t even sustain interest in its own premise.
Sometimes a movie like this can get by on an engaging cast since we’re literally just going to be stuck with them for 90 minutes, but no such luck here. No one is terrible, and it’s sort of nice to see Debra Ann Woll do something other than act as the emotional support bestie to a rotating cast of self-immolating Marvel Netflix sad sacks. But she still doesn’t get to do much here playing an Iraq veteran with a grab bag of PTSD affectations beyond audition for action roles (in hopefully better movies) by looking more or less convincing in the upside down billiard hall sequence that comes the closest to actually doing something novel with the film’s premise.
Rounding out the rest of the Scooby Gang are a collection of generic stereotypes all afflicted with various ripped-from-the-headlines #relatable problems including a blue collar schmuck, an overeager gamer, an agoraphobic math prodigy, a Wall Street alpha dog, and a scruffy slacker. They’ve all got exactly one positive trait, one negative trait, one dark secret, and one sob story or personality quirk that’s meant to get us either rooting for or against them.
It’s at least not necessarily obvious who’s going to be last man standing, but only because the film is so completely devoid of theme or subtext that there’s no real way to figure anything out until it finally rolls over to the finale and an exceptionally dull antagonist wearily explains “Oh! By the way, this is what the movie was about.”