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“I've Seen Things You People Wouldn't Believe"

Escape Room (January 2019)

Movie Review by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Six individuals from wide-ranging backgrounds—a store stock clerk, a high-level trader, a physics student, a former miner, a war vet, and a games enthusiast—receive invitations to the most cutting-edge and immersive escape room in town, with a chance to win $10,000. The stakes turn out to be much higher than they bargained for: survival itself.

The Great Escape

I didn’t go gaga over Adam Robitel’s 2018 film, Insidious: The Last Key, and though it may be damning with moribund praise, I’m happy to report that I had a better time with his latest feature. There are two main reasons: Escape Room delivered on the modest expectations engendered in me by its title and premise, and it’s effectively paced, with a competent mix of action and not-entirely-perfunctory character development. Visually--and despite the fact that the floor literally gives way in several of the escape rooms--I think Robitel is on surer footing this time around; there’s more confidence to his setups and the dynamics of the camera work. Steve Mirkovich’s slick editing also helps, and Marc Spicer’s cinematography is less drab than I found Toby Oliver’s on the Insidious sequel. Finally, Brian Tyler and John Carey provide sonic suspense and adrenaline by the bucket-load, without skimping on stabs at pathos, pun intended: their score is like Charlie Clouser horror film music elevated by the import of a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross dramatic composition.

As is probably obvious, this film isn’t a paragon of originality—picture Cube (1997), Thir13en Ghosts (2001), and Saw (2004) all getting together on a Friday night to knock down some brewskis, and, when appropriately inebriated, sloppily inviting their Final Destination (2000-2011) pals over to join in the morbid revelries—but neither does it pretend to be. Six people enter an escape room. It takes them about five minutes to realize (well, except for Danny; he’s a bit naïve) that the room’s heat traps are real, and that if they don’t find the clues that will enable their egress pronto they’ll be Kentucky-fried. By the time we get to the second room, which starts as a cabin but opens up into a wintry setting, coolly expanded through 3d-computer projections, we realize that in order to solve each puzzle, the characters are going to have to dig into personal traumas. This raises interesting questions, such as: how did the puzzle-makers know these intimate details related to the participants’ pasts, and what if anything do the players have in common? By the time we enter the third room, whose inverted pool table bar offers the film’s most visually inventive design, another fundamental question must be asked: what is the point of these increasingly harder traps, besides testing the players’ wits and endurance? The ensemble acting, though it intermittently falters, is passable enough to convey these mysteries with a reasonable facsimile of urgency.

In a way, Escape Room’s modest successes hinge on the art of making the inside of a box feel like open space. This applies to the rooms it depicts, sure, but more subtly, to the film’s screenplay, which must by necessity expand to grander vistas and implications or eventually risk collapsing in on itself. Unfortunately, this tendency to up the stakes while covering increasingly vaster ground accelerates past a critical credibility-defying point in the finale--worse, not an ending but a setup for a sequel. My suggestion? Simply pretend that the movie ends on the penultimate scene and call it a day.

Thinking Outside the Box – Spoilers Ahead

I was pleasantly surprised by the ultimate resolution to the movie’s harrowing opening scene, and I generally enjoyed the script’s handling of Ben’s character (nicely played by Logan Miller). Zoe’s (Taylor Russell) arc was less satisfying. I understand the gosh-wow factor of her being inspired to figure out an alternative strategy by thinking of the quantum Zeno effect, but that entire development would have worked better if the science involved were less dubiously applied. I shouldn’t complain too much, I suppose, since physics saved the day!

Speaking of Zoe, at the start of the film her physics teacher attempts to impart some wisdom to her: “Life isn’t a science experiment. You can’t contain your world forever.” Reducing the number of variables, he argues, isn’t the answer. Interestingly—and I don’t think the film is necessarily aware of this irony--the uber-conspiracy responsible for the Minos rooms, despite its vast wealth, is hostage to an anxiety akin to that with which Zoey commences. The entire purpose of their escape rooms and intricate candidate selection process is to reduce the number of variables, and then observe which of the limited outcomes players arrive at. So they’re basically a priesthood of socially ill-at-ease techno-nerds (and not too subtle with the mythological allusions). In a sense, then, Zoey’s bold actions and her upsetting of the escape room scenario not only enable her to transcend her own psychological limitations, but in fact they help her evolve into a richer, more self-actualized self than the people behind the rooms. No matter what happens in any potential sequels, she’s already won.

A few more words on these alleged masterminds. There appears to be a fatal logical flaw in their “test-who-is-luckiest” escape room model as shown in the movie, namely that the ordering of clues from room to room matters. That is to say, clues in successive rooms depend on the sole specific knowledge of a given individual that could have died in an earlier room, thus fatally dooming the entire group. For example, if Ben had been incapacitated in the first escape room, it seems inconceivable that the group would have figured out that “Rudolph” would unlock the door, since that required Ben’s memory of the song playing during his car crash. The problem persists, with increasing severity, the deeper in we get. Which raises another issue of implausibility: the level of details the conspiracy has about the candidates’ past traumas. I mean, being able to reproduce the exact hospital rooms they were in, in some cases years earlier? Right.

Escape Room’s dialogue isn’t its strongest suit, but Jason (Jay Ellis) gets a pretty good line in an early scene: “Money can’t buy you happiness,” he says, “but it can afford you your own misery.” Again, in retrospect, we can argue that by the end of the movie this sentiment doubles as a condemnation of the conspiracy-mongers. With all of their privilege and elite wealth, they seem to be a rather hapless bunch that can conceive of nothing more inspired than gladiatorial-style thrills to get their kicks. And sadly they can’t even get that right. Misery indeed.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro's reviews and essays have appeared in markets like the Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show.

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