As the calendar turned to 2019 and with my Top 10 films of 2018 (which you can go see over at Battleship Pretension) filed, I find myself a bit renewed. Being on a 2 month parental leave from work to care for my soon-to-be 6-month-old daughter gives me some time on my hands, as well. So, here I’m back to write again. I can’t promise I’ll be as thorough as I tried to be in the first half or so of 2018 (I can’t even promise that this space will be around when the renewal fees are due in June) but for the meantime, I’m here and I’ll be as active as I wish to be.
As with many, Escape Room is my first experience with the year-in-film 2019. The puzzle box horror film stars Taylor Russell and Logan Miller as two in a group of six unfortunate souls who are gifted invitations to a new cutting edge escape room with a dangling prize of $10,000 for completion. The six all come from very different backgrounds that are expanded throughout the film in flashback snippets that shed light as to a possible connection among strangers. Their initial curiosity or excitement for escape rooms slowly melts away as they realize they are pawns in something more sinister as they travel from intricate puzzle room to intricate puzzle room, defying death by being baked alive, frozen, poisoned, and so on.
The obvious comparison points are to Saw and Final Destination and the like, long horror franchises that morphed into nothing more than creative kill machines. As a direct comparison, Escape Room does match up among the best versions of the genre. At least it is as well made and designed, fully using the escape room setpiece without much outside intervention. Unlike a Saw or Final Destination, which at their most cynical only engages the viewer with the expectation of extreme violence, Escape Room lets the viewer play along, thinking about the clues with the players.
Further thinking about the subgenre, Escape Room suffers from its characters feeling more like characteristics. Part of the film’s design going into the inevitable final reveal needs to make each player significant for one specific reason and we don’t know much more about anyone other than that. Sure, the survivors are able to overcome their particular flaws, but there really isn’t that much true character growth. Zoey is a brilliant-but-demure student with a special interest in quantum physics (at least that’s the college course we’re shown her taking), Ben is a sad alcoholic, Jason is an entitled CEO-type, Mike is a happy-go-lucky dad, Amanda is a damaged soldier, and Danny is a cloying geek. I understand that part of the experiment here is to put a Breakfast Club-esque group of different cliches together in a more extreme environment, but being 2019 and not the mid-80s, I’d rather these characters (even one) transcend their three-word log lines in any way.
That said, I’ll reiterate that Escape Room puts in much more effort to build a world and engage the audience than it could have. I wouldn’t necessarily call the full experience “fun” or particularly memorable in any way, this is only a “surprise” when going in with the lowest of expectations. I’m not even sure I’m all that up for any further Escape Room movies that the film’s ending is trying to build. There is no need to go into any particulars on the film’s ending here, but it is a bit of a silly letdown from the simple plot mechanics of the escape room designs. Going back yet again to the two franchise films Escape Room seems to be striving for, I would honestly be more interested in future films in the mold of Final Destination (resetting the parameters of each film and just keeping the core concept) than Saw (a world with a specific inter-connected mythology and worldview).