ESCAPE ROOM Review: I’d Like To Solve The Puzzle

2019 kicks off with a pretty solid horror film.

January film releases have a not entirely unearned reputation for being those films that studios send out to die at the box office, failed experiments from the previous year that don’t stand a chance against the tentpoles released on Christmas but cost enough money that they at least need to attempt making it back through some kind of theatrical release. The reason studios don’t have faith in the films they push to January is often that the films themselves aren’t very good, and the usual signifier of such is that the studio won’t even bother with a press screening, which was the case – at least where I’m based – with this week’s Escape Room, the latest entry in the “let’s take the new popular thing and make it scary” subgenre of horror films.

Yet here’s the thing, folks: I’m not really sure why Sony decided that this was the film to give the uncoveted early January slot. Sure, it’s not an especially great film, but it baffles me why they wouldn’t try to market this film at a less busy time of year, because at the end of the day Escape Room is a pretty solid horror movie.

The premise is about straightforward as they come. Six strangers receive mysterious invitations to a premiere escape room with the promise of a $10,000 cash prize should they solve it, only for the puzzles and obstacles within the succession of rooms to be decidedly lethal. Each of the main cast is something of a loner with a secret past that the faceless gamemasters allude to through the composition of the puzzles, and they must overcome their dislike of one another to cooperate and survive the trials of each room, even as their chances of individual survival dwindle with the increasing difficulty of the challenges.

Now, like I said, Escape Room isn’t exactly perfect, particularly on a technical level. There are some weird editing choices where it feels like maybe they didn’t get the shots they needed, and there’s a lot of unnecessary voiceover, clearly added in post-production to explain parts of the puzzles in a way that insults the intelligence of viewers even only half paying attention. And on the story side of things, the unifying reason for why these strangers have been brought together, and consequently the identity of their captors, is pretty contrived, bleeding into an overlong epilogue for a hook to a sequel that definitely shouldn’t happen the way they’ve set it up. These are all annoying issues in the moment, but they largely exist in isolation as moments that don’t work, rather than fatal detractors from the overall experience.

And that’s because, on a fundamental level, the premise of Escape Room is just fun. The designs of the various rooms are inventive and novel, such as a waiting room that gradually transforms into an oven, a virtual wilderness with a frozen lake they must navigate for clues, a pool bar flipped upside down with a floor that drops out at timed intervals, and one that is just a visual trip that shouldn’t be spoiled unless you suffer from epilepsy. The puzzles themselves aren’t really designed to test audience intelligence, but instead function as conflicts that force the cast to interact with one another, and the character work on display is totally solid. This cast is populated with some pretty great character actors from television and film, including Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Nik Dodani, and Jay Ellis, and it’s their talents that sell the intensity of the peril in these rooms, whether they’re scrambling not to be cooked alive or huddling together to prevent freezing to death.

Escape Room is a slight pleasure, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless. The weaknesses in the story and the editing mainly act as hiccups between the elaborate puzzle room setpieces that the film is selling itself on, and for the most part those sequences are exactly as entertaining as advertised. This isn’t exactly rush-out-and-see cinema, but to assume it’s trash from the January release date would be a mistake.