There's an air of inevitability about Escape Room. A strong feeling of familiarity, too. Hollywood was always going to turn the popular pastime into a scary movie — a matter of when, not if — but this first major attempt just rebadges a horror film staple. Long before people were paying to sleuth their way out of a locked space, audiences have been watching the same concept on the big screen. It's there in countless haunted house flicks, in 1997's stylish and twisty thriller Cube, and in the gore of the Saw franchise as well. All that Escape Room adds to the mix is an obvious moniker, and a clear desire to start a new Final Destination-style series.
The setup is as straightforward as expected, with six strangers receiving mysterious invitations to visit a new Chicago space. If they can find their way out of the high-tech escape room, which no one has been able to manage so far, they'll win $10,000 for their troubles. But as shy college student Zoey (Taylor Russell), supermarket slacker Ben (Logan Miller) and finance whiz Jason (Jay Elis) wait to enter the puzzle alongside dedicated gamer Danny (Nik Dodani), the high-strung Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) and the older Mike (Tyler Labine), it becomes apparent that this isn't any old immersive experience. From the moment that the lobby starts getting warmer than it should be, these competitors aren't just angling for a cash prize — they're endeavouring to stay alive.
Thanks to an unrelated, barely seen 2017 film that's also called Escape Room, plus a 2018 TV movie called No Escape Room, director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) and screenwriters Bragi Schut (Season of the Witch) and Maria Melnik (TV's Counterpart) aren't treading new filmic ground in any sense. Rather, they're merely jumping into territory that's recognisable in several ways, just with a bigger budget and audience reach. Still, while there's much that remains well-worn about 2019's Escape Room, Robitel and company don't always stick to painting by the numbers. Although their picture won't wow viewers with its twists, or surprise many with its tricks and riddles, it does succeed in the most crucial area: making its escape room sequences stand out.
There's more than one literally killer space to flee here, and each proves inventive and clever — whether stranding Zoey, Ben and the gang in an upside-down pool bar, or thrusting them into a place that resembles a hellish acid trip. Indeed, watching the group navigate each complicated chamber never fails to entertain and impress, with full credit due to the movie's production designers. It's a strange sensation, to view characters fighting for their lives as their surroundings attempt to assassinate them, and to completely understand the appeal of the escape room craze. This isn't an ad for the real thing or an accurate representation of it, obviously, however by making its spaces so intriguing and engaging, the film aptly conveys why they've become so popular.
Alas, at almost every other turn, Escape Room is a rare picture that could've benefited from fewer details, not more. When you're filling your film with stereotypical characters, giving them standard personality traits and cliched traumatic backstories doesn't add depth — it just highlights how paper-thin everyone is. Similarly, while witnessing the sextet's battle for survival is suitably unsettling and suspenseful, attempting to explain why they're stuck in this predicament feels overly contrived, even for such a high-concept premise. It also feels utterly unnecessary, and smacks of attempting to set up a sequel. When Escape Room lures audiences into its murderous maze, more of the same may sound like a treat. But when the movie is happily ticking boxes, it serves up a firm reminder that many horror flicks can barely sustain their own running time, let alone a franchise.