Entertainment fads don’t tend to inspire the best movies. But those who’ve jumped on the escape room trend (and those of us who remain merely curious) have lucked out with Adam Robitel’s Escape Room, a cutthroat little thriller that’s surely more fun than most of the riddle-solving lock-ins currently springing up around the country. (Bonus: It won’t make team-building coworkers want to kill each other!) Conspicuously short on gore, it’s geared toward those who prefer the thrill of impending death to seeing the actual event. Though its final beats have an awfully familiar flavor, this is one time a fright-flick’s inevitable promise to return doesn’t inspire groans.
We begin in an elegant, wood-paneled study, where a desperate-sounding young man suddenly crashes through the ceiling and starts searching for an exit. He limps all around, frantically looking for hints to the combination of a puzzle-like lock on the door, but one wall of the room decides to go all Death Star trash-compactor on him. He’s being crushed to death when the movie discreetly cuts away.
Won’t make moviegoers hunt for the exit.
Leaping back three days, we meet a brilliant but shy young math/physics student, Zoey (Taylor Russell), who’s staying on campus alone over Thanksgiving. She’d planned on some quality time with unsolved equations, but a professor nudges her out of the dorm: He mails her an elegant little puzzle box — the same one we’re seeing other characters solve elsewhere — that contains an invitation to the mysterious Minos building. There, a group of strangers including that soon-to-be-squished guy we just saw (Logan Miller’s Ben) have been told they’re competing for a prize of ten grand.
They’re actually in a game of death, of course, but they won’t know that for a while. The first challenge they face, a delicious scenario threatening to incinerate them, scares their pants (make that jackets) off but lets them think it’s all a very expensively produced game. Not so in the next round, where they face hypothermia.
As the teammates get to know each other, screenwriters Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik hint that some — especially Amanda, played by True Blood‘s Deborah Ann Woll — have traumatic memories that are being suspiciously triggered in big and small ways by each room they have to scrape their way out of. It’s not spoiling anything to say that someone knows their secrets (implausibly, in some cases) and has designed riddles and clues only they can figure out.
That’s one of the few conceptual missteps in a movie whose best set pieces will make palms sweat: A story stuffed with visual and linguistic riddles would be more fun if we viewers had a sliver of a chance of guessing the answers along with those on the screen.
Instead, we’re stuck in the passenger seat, watching people squabble and scramble while we hope that the more annoying characters (like a two-dimensionally selfish stock trader played by Jay Ellis) are the first to be weeded out of the group.
It doesn’t work that way, and some of the ensemble’s most sympathetic characters (like Zoey) don’t get as much to do as they might’ve. Thankfully, the team’s one older, chubbier member (Tyler Labine) isn’t the butt of too much snark, and even gets to calmly insist on civility when panic turns one of his teammates nasty. (Alas, another character, a diehard gamer played by Nik Dodani, gets insulted with impunity.)
Despite the early threat of torture-porn, Escape Room is less sadistic than relentless, pausing only once to catch its breath and let our heroes spill enough of their secrets to make sense of things. While its scares aren’t as clever as, say, the best moments in the Final Destination series, Robitel does bring visual wit to the most memorable sequence, a topsy-turvy challenge where the camera plays with our disorientation even as the actors find their footing.
That centerpiece also offers more persuasive heroism than is usually found in flicks like this. Here’s hoping that, should box office receipts justify that sequel we’re promised, more thrills like this lie in store.
Production company: Original Film
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Deborah Ann Woll, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis
Director: Adam Robitel
Screenwriters: Bragi Schut, Maria Melnik
Producers: Ori Marmur, Neal H. Moritz
Director of photography: Marc Spicer
Production designer: Edward Thomas
Costume designer: Reza Levy
Editor: Steve Mirkovich
Composers: John Carey, Brian Tyler
Casting director: Tamara Hunter
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes