“Surviving is a choice. Make yours.”
Following the tragic escape room disaster that claimed the lives of five teenage girls in a blazing fire, it’s no wonder that the idea behind this form of immersive entertainment would be considered fertile ground for a horror film. Adam Robitel’s Escape Room (2019) does just that, raising the stakes higher with every room the players squeeze into. However, as we crawl deeper and deeper into the heart of the story, coming away unimpressed seems as easy as waking up from a bad dream.
Zoey (Taylor Russell), Ben (Logan Miller), Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), Jason (Jay Ellis), Mike (Tyler Labine) and Danny (Nik Dodani) are six people from all walks of life, who are selected to be among the first to compete for a ten thousand dollar cash prize in a new, advanced escape room. They soon find out that simply calling out for help, or threatening the blinking cameras in the corners of the room with legal action, is as ineffective as closing their eyes and expecting to wake up safely in their beds. The deeper they go, the less human they become. Who will come out alive, and who will perish with their humanity intact?
Escape Room certainly starts off with a bang, inverting the chronological order of events and promising nothing but heart-seizing momentum throughout. We are simultaneously lured in by the richness of Marc Spicer’s cinematography, which transforms the canvas of the film into a squelching visual feast comprised of thick peaches and bleeding reds. Its smoothness is only augmented by Brian Tyler and John Carey’s music, which is delectably relentless in its aim to keep us on the edge of our seats with its constant thrum. This leaves us forever expecting the walls to suddenly smash everyone to pulp, even when the serene logic of the dialogue should indicate the opposite.
The acting is also a pleasant force that keeps the film from crumbling. All six characters are quite distinct, presenting stark personalities that bring a unique presence to the film. However, the lack of originality here fails to slither past our consciousness. The story’s reliance on strong personalities and their individual weaknesses is eerily similar to Vincenzo Natali’s Canadian sci-fi horror Cube (1997), as is the need to crawl through a ventilation shaft to escape the horrors of each flesh-starved room.
What seems quite odd, and even more reminiscent of Cube, is the characters’ unwarranted, prickly meanness and prejudice towards each other. Perhaps this aims to reflect on the animalistic qualities we all suppress, and which betray us with a vengeance when survival starts to depend on our ability to retain a semblance of control and empathy. The comparison between the main antagonist and Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) is even blatantly stated in one of the more humorous scenes of the film by a character, whose outward appearance sets off needlessly ruthless remarks from the rest. Ben also happens to the most obviously humane of all of them, which can be interpreted as another allusion to the society we live in.
The link between the horrors we witness and humanity’s warped morality exists in the form of the ever-watchful camera with invasive knowledge of the darkest corners of the characters’ psyches, bringing to mind Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). And yet, despite the underlying horrors of the world that would allow these modern-day gladiator games, the film fails to raise our heart rates. Its plot seems entirely too predictable to be stimulating, and its characters fail to be likeable enough to make us invested in their fates.
Despite sealing the characters in a confined space, the absence of the gut-wrenching claustrophobia the audience would usually be forced to succumb to is a little baffling. This could be down to the camerawork, with its leisurely take on the expanses of the rooms that allow the characters to breathe a sigh of relief away from the rest. In a bid to upend our conviction of the unfolding of the film’s events, Escape Room takes a leap, hoping the sudden plot twist at the end will plant awe in our minds. Well, it struggles there as well. If anything, it digs holes in an abstract story that was held together by the little rationality we were promised at the start.
By the end, it becomes clear that the film aims to be a stepping stone to another Final Destination franchise, and the news that a sequel is in the works does nothing to dissuade this opinion. If only a bit more thought had been given to the nurturing of tension in Escape Room, the announcement would succeed in igniting a spark of excitement. If you are looking for a true horror film centered on a similar concept, I strongly suggest turning to Cube instead.
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