Escape Room feels like a movie whose existence was assured from the moment the first trend piece was published about those titular team-building exercises that have since become ubiquitous. It’s a no-brainer: Unlike our countless phone-based diversions, escape rooms are probably one of the only contemporary innovations in human recreation that lends itself to compelling onscreen action. And as with movies about theme-park spook houses come to life, there’s a fun conceptual ouroboros baked into making a movie about an escape room — a place people go in part to feel like they themselves are in a movie — turned real and deadly. But the increasingly wobbly line between reality and unreality is just one tense contraption rigged up in Insidious and Paranormal Activity franchise veteran Adam Robitel’s tight, fun little thriller.
And it really is a thriller, more than the horror movie one might assume it would be. The film opens by introducing us to three of its six strangers, who eventually find themselves in the waiting room of an escape room that promises to be the most immersive in the country. Zoey (Taylor Russell) is a shy, brilliant college student with a trauma in her past, Jason (Jay Ellis) is a suave, go-getting stock broker with a survival-of-the-fittest philosophy of life, Ben (Logan Miller) is a failson with a drinking problem working for his uncle in the backroom of a hardware store. They’re all gifted invitations to the experience by people close to them — for Zoey and Ben, as a means to broaden their horizons. The first challenge is opening the invitation box itself, and in a brief montage that cuts between the three of them struggling with the puzzle, we find ourselves instantly rooting for them. There’s something humanizing and humbling about a good puzzle, and even the coldest Patrick Bateman type or hopeless slacker can be a little redeemed if we see him really applying himself to one.
They arrive at the game, and meet Iraq veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), struggling long-haul truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine), and die-hard escape-room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani). And before they realize it, the game has already begun, and its volley of perils are alarmingly real — real heat and flame, real hypothermia, real claustrophobia and dizzying heights to fall from. Even as the game starts claiming lives, the players begin to realize that the game seems to have embedded within it references to buried secrets in their lives — and that even though they’re all strangers, they have one improbable thing in common.
Escape Room’s PG-13 rating doesn’t allow for a lot of blood or gore, but it’s not missed, and Robitel finds plenty of other ways to keeps his finger on the tension button throughout the film’s 100 minutes. A lot of that is due to the continuously, pleasantly surprising quality of its art direction. The series of puzzle environments — ranging from a simulated snowy woodland, to an upside down bar, to an abstract psychedelic living room — are clever and atmospheric and look, for lack of a better word, expensive. There’s real care and attention to detail in all of the wicked little traps of Escape Room, where a lesser production might have cut corners.
But the same can be said for Maria Melnik and Bragi Schut’s script, which does a lot of deft work setting up the six players and their backstories without letting them feel like pieces of meat being lined up for the chopping block. It’s a surprisingly funny script, too, and Dodani’s nerdy aficionado, oohing and aahing with an appraiser’s authority at every new life-threatening terror, makes for nice, gallows-y comic seasoning. Only as the film turns toward its final showdown do the seams start to show, revealing a big bad whose motivation feels thuddingly familiar. But the film’s final button is hilariously portentous and pleasantly disorienting, a final pirouette of the simulation-upon-simulation antics that the movie’s been playing with all along. And, of course, it sets up a sequel — which, if it happens, will be very much deserved.