Escape Room (2019)
Director: Adam Robitel
Screenplay: Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik
Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani
I really like Saw II. The first is great, the third is fine, and everything beyond that are contrived, formulaic attempts at creating continuity. What could one gain by cribbing off Saw II while tossing in a dash of Final Destination, Tom Riddle, and Hunger Games? As of writing, $23.2 million at the box office.
Escape Room is a lot like Saw II, but worse. The visuals may be decent, but it’s written and paced terribly. In Saw II there were characters we empathise with, if for no other reason than the excruciating experience they’re enduring. Instead, we get a cast akin to a focus group Dick Cheney wants to market the Iraq War to, and they each act about two notes. The scenario, scenes, and “twists” are ludicrous.
I really did like the look of the movie, though. The set designers did a great job with the rooms. While the camerawork was touchy (they broke the 180 rule a lot, so room layouts and orientation can get confusing), each escape room had a unique look with neat knick-knacks. My favourite was a room where the entrants were dosed with DMT through their hands. The walls were black-and-white swirls, there were TVs with static, and there are fantastic psychedelic effects (between this and Bandersnatch, we’ve seen some quality trip visuals recently) that warp our senses right along with the character’s.
Unfortunately, the bad far outweighs the good. To start, who is the main character? Is it Zoey? Is it Ben? Is it Jason? Ben is shown first. He’s going through an escape room. It reminded me of the opening to Saw II. Someone is going alone through a trap that teases what’s in store. They don’t escape, and the tone of the film is set. Saw II cuts to the police investigation of the prologue. Escape Room goes on to follow Zoey, a brainy, introverted student. We follow her for a while. Then it follows Jason, a businessman who is similar to the antagonist of Saw II, Xavier Chavez. Then it goes to Ben, who turns out to be the guy we saw crushed to death in the first scene, leaving me to wonder why he’s the last one to make it, or why they didn’t just show us a separate event like Saw II. By the end, it turns out to be Zoey, kind of. We’ll get there.
To the writers of Escape Room, depth is the same thing as backstory unveiling and the best characters do it slowest. Characters take protracted moments from the action to chat about their lives and personalities, seemingly at random. They all meet in a waiting room and each character (there are six, we didn’t follow three of them) gets a moment to say whatever. Jason ends up boasting to a teenager about all the sex he has, and no one feels the need to mention how that’s inappropriate and the awkward small talk continues. It’s also appears a couple of these actors had a green light to improv comedic dialogue that just doesn’t fit at all.
They soon realise this room is an escape room! Wow! The group searches for clues. The first clue turns on heaters around the room, turning the room into a massive oven. This oven has no consistent temperature. It’s at least 80 F (26.7 C) because plastic is melting, but that’s not very hot. But these characters treat it like it’s burning. We also learn that rooms might connect to each person (and not just because the trailer said so) because Amanda, a soldier, has a flashback to an IED explosion. Explosions are hot, just like oven rooms. Well, they kind of relate to each character. Fortunately, we do get a tip for whose it is by who gets the flashback to a traumatic event, and they act not fine instead of their normal fine. It’s honestly so silly and inconsistent. In the next room, they debate whether or not this is real or fake. Let’s be honest, when there is a real fiery explosion, I can’t suspend my disbelief to give this faux-skepticism credit. Just let these characters freak out and be scared! Make it terrifying! How can I buy it when half the group is way too casual about the danger? In Saw II, a guy gets his eye shot out, and the characters understand the stakes while the viewer gets it reinforced. Two rooms in, we have no deaths.
The second room is insane. It’s a neat little cottage with a lock that needs a seven word code. That’s an absurd lock; I’ve searched for one online and cannot find one. Ben tells the group that the code is Rudolph. Why Rudolph? Because Ben was driving drunk singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” when he was in a car wreck. Ben has a flashback to this event, but doesn’t feel the need to mention the relevance to anyone. They open the lock and move into a frosty tundra.
The frosty tundra goes on a bit too long. The room, which has some kind of screen technology showing the snowy area, has a huge iced-over body of water right in the middle. This is all in a concrete building, by the way. Did they clear out a couple of floors and use a pool for the ice? How did they have a self-contained explosion that only destroyed one room earlier? What is the layout of this building? How did they get permits? Jigsaw’s methods are unlikely but infinitely more plausible in reality. The cold room is Jason’s room. Jason’s friend went crazy and swam off when they were trapped on a boat in the ocean, taking their one coat. Now they only have one coat, and it’s getting pretty chilly. Danny, a character that doesn’t matter except he’s the only one that’s heard of an escape room, falls through the ice and drowns. Turns out this is all real.
After a series of strange events, they fish out a block of ice containing a key. Rather than thaw the key with the coat, they use their hands. Finally, they retrieve it. Jason becomes not fine, everyone else is fine, and they run to the next room. This room is Zoey’s, and her flashback is to a plane crash where the plane went upside down. The room is also upside down, but it’s not a plane. Instead, it’s a bar that’s upside down inside of an elevator that’s losing parts of the bottom slowly. The puzzle in this room is so dumb. There’s reason to it, they just conveniently stumble upon all of the answers. Sadly, Amanda is lost in the process, falling to a PG-13 kersplat at the bottom of the elevator.
The next room contains all the exposition for why they’re all here, a question I don’t recall anyone asking until this moment. They all walk around going, “hey this was my hospital bed.” At this point, I joked that the doctor was behind it all because it’s fun to make silly predictions about who the killer is. Certainly no writer would be silly enough to do that, right? Well for now, we have no idea. But the characters get to tell their story about being a sole survivor. That’s the connecting thread between all of these characters. In Saw II, Jigsaw wants to teach people lessons. They face their fears, pasts and addictions. Now I’m not going to act like that’s the pinnacle of villain, but it adds real depth to Jigsaw. He sees himself as a moral person, judging the wicked. At this point, there is no questioning of who is behind this. Who it could be. The doctor and one character’s nephew (Mike, who is inconsequential, mentioned his nephew sent him the invitation to the escape room and texted him “have a good time” before Mike departed. That’s as plausible a theory as the doctor) are the only possible leads. That’s the central point of the trailer, the question of who and why. The characters don’t care until this point. Zoey runs around screaming physics words and smashing cameras that are watching them (this is crucial), while Jason tried to jack up Mike’s heart rate to hit a high limit on an EKG to open a door. Mike dies, methane gas comes, Jason realises he needs to lower his heart rate to open the door, Ben is yelling about how Jason killed Mike, and Zoey is still going crazy.
Zoey is left behind to die, and Ben and Jason proceed. The protagonist confusion is brought back, but Jason is clearly the antagonist now because he killed Mike (it’s not like he was trying to) and admits he killed his friend from his flashback (he was suffering from hypothermia messes with your brain so it’s not like he meant to). This is the DMT room, and they trip while searching for an antidote. Ben gets it, and we’re back in the opening scene.
After all this time, we now understand the true absurdity of the decision to open the film here. Ben is lucky, not smart. He hasn’t solved any puzzles except his own and he is consistently portrayed as a doofus. So I guess it makes sense that after all of these rooms, he immediately begins screwing with stuff. This causes the walls to collapse in like the trash compactor in Star Wars. In a matter of moments, he solves every puzzle, the door doesn’t open, and he’s about to be crushed to death (Mike had survived a coal mine collapse that his brother perished in, thankfully he told us that before he died) when he hides in a fireplace. He survives, and proceeds to a room with a bunch of computer screens, one of which has a photo of each character. The dead ones have a red “x” over them.
A British man reveals that the bad guys are a bunch of rich people that pay to watch people go through escape rooms, and this year’s theme was sole survivors. The guy tries to garrotte Ben when his computer’s connection is lost! Then a photo of the British guy appears on the character photo screen, along with Zoey’s losing the dead designation. Turns out she’s alive, and she and Ben kill the guy. They managed to escape all the rooms, and are treated in the hospital.
After a nurse gives the worst line delivery I’ve ever heard in a wide release, a doctor walks into the room where Ben is unconscious. He asks Zoey to come with him. They walk into the building where the film took place (always good to bring trauma victims right back to the scene of the crime when they were just in the hospital), and guess what? The cops found no evidence to back up her story (I don’t know how that’s possible unless literally every cop is corrupt), and the doctor insinuates that she’s crazy. She sees “no way out” on the wall, and that’s an anagram for WOOTAN YOU WHICH IS THE NAME OF THE DOCTOR FROM EARLIER! They stole the ending to “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” for their stupid Saw II ripoff. It can’t possibly get sillier than that.
Not until we cut to six months later, anyway. Ben and Zoey are dating? They’re at least hanging out regularly. Zoey constructed a scrapbook of every character’s mysterious death, and purchased two tickets to a sequel. The film moves onto a plane, making me wonder if I had been dosed with DMT because this movie cannot continue. Two people on board are doing an escape room as the plane crashes. Twist, it’s a simulation for an escape room to appear in the sequel. A shadowy figure appears to confirm a sequel once again, and then it’s finally over.
Escape Room baffles me. It’s not even competent at copying the formula for a Saw film. It wants to be big and thrilling, but it’s not. Almost everything about this movie is a miss, and the entitled expectation of a sequel is annoying. The only room it’ll make you want to escape is your theatre, am I right? Skip Escape Room, watch Saw II.