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Escape Room (2019)
Movie Reviews

Escape Room (2019)

Unpretentious thrills with clever dialogue and suspenseful puzzles make this more than just a PG-13 Saw imitation.

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Several people have told me that Escape Room wants to be a PG-13 version of the Saw movies, which are very much R-rated affairs. Honestly, I thought the same after watching the trailer, which may have been the real draw for me to see it. The suspense and build up in many of the Saw films is fantastic, and so are the twists. But I could do without the realistic gore and excessive torture porn at this stage in my life.

Escape Room starts off in medias res, with one of our leads, Ben (Logan Miller), alone and trapped in a Clue-like library collapsing onto itself. Things are off to a good start for the audience, as this sequence is both suspenseful showcasing a creatively artful aesthetic. So far, so good!

We then go back a few days to the events leading up to our three de facto protagonists receiving their mysteriously anonymous invitations to an equally mysterious “escape room” in Chicago. Upon arriving, they meet three others whom we end up learning a bit more about over the course of events. They’re told they will receive $10,000 for making it all the way through the puzzle. Other than this, little else is known as who sent out these invitations and why he (or she) chose these six people remains a mystery. We know something is up, but the fun part is figuring it out.

What happens next mainly revolves around Ben and two others: Zoey and Jason. Zoey, played by Taylor Russell, is a shy college student. It’s implied that she’s some sort of genius and we get the idea that she’s our true main character (her face is on the poster for the film). Though she doesn’t completely convince us that she’s comfortable playing the timid role, we like Russell enough to root for her. Jason (Jay Ellis) is some sort of business magnate. Early on, we know he’s one of those archetypal cutthroat entrepreneur types, and the movie has no qualms about throwing all appropriate stereotypes our way. But don’t worry, there are still some surprises pertaining to this that I won’t spoil.

If you’re unfamiliar with escape rooms, they’re pretty self-explanatory. In real life, they’re a game where people usually pay money to get “trapped” inside an actual room and must use clues to find a way out before the clock hits zero. If they don’t figure it out, they lose, and can go home knowing that it was all fake. In this movie, however, the characters soon learn that the consequences for failure are all too real and that they can actually die.

Certain overarching twists in Escape Room aren’t terribly difficult to figure out. If we’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies, we can probably guess specific motives or even telegraph basic plot points, but there are so many moving parts that something will always keep us engaged. For instance, the puzzles themselves aren’t predictable. And instead of the filmmakers only giving us clues that we can’t see, they hide certain things in plain sight so that we could potentially figure things out if we wanted to exert that much effort.

And what of the marquee escape room? Or rooms? There’s about a half dozen, each unique in their own right, utilizing a different hook or theme each time. We get one room where the characters find themselves in a giant oven. Another is an upside-down pool hall with a floor that breaks away piece-by-piece, musical chairs-style. Without giving too much away, I thought the penultimate room could have been slightly better. It has an interesting catch, but seems a little too contrived. Nonetheless, it was a necessary path to take to get to the end result.

Escape Room doesn’t feel like its PG-13 rating robs us of anything. If anything, it allows itself to be more fun than dark. It doesn’t need gore to make itself gripping, but we also don’t feel like we’re missing what it’s holding back, or that there’s anything held back in the first place. It’s inevitable the moment of truth will come down to the final act. How will it end and will it be satisfying? Obviously, I won’t spoil anything by answering the former, but to the latter, let’s just say it’s a satisfying resolution to everything we’ve seen unfold. It’s like like we were expecting some artistic finish here, but we also don’t get things tied up neatly in a bow, either.

Escape Room may indeed be a Saw movie for younger teens, but it’s smart enough to never rely on such an easy gimmick, cribbing notes from its R-rated inspiration in knowing certain elements aren’t as important as others, such as character depth versus character investment. Whatever the case, this is a movie with few pretensions, allowing us to have fun with thoroughly enjoyable puzzles that never give us an opportunity to mentally check out. The dialogue is deceptively clever and there’s some pretty good characters to root for, even if the acting is subpar. But good acting is usually a bonus cherry on top for these kinds of movies anyway. Maybe I’m just a sucker for suspense, but I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun at the theater.