It’s hard to deny the innovative nature of Escape Room‘s concept – taking something that’s become a social phenomenon in recent years, the recreational escape room experience, and putting a Saw-esque spin on it. It’s a fascinating concept that could breathe new life into that sub-genre of horror, but it doesn’t quite live up to its concept.

The premise isn’t there to push the boat out, and merely makes room for the ensuing escape-based thrills to take place. It’s a simple concept – six seemingly random people are handpicked to take part in a revolutionary escape room, with a $10,000 reward for finishing it. It plays heavily upon the Saw films’ habit of stop-start plotting, where we’re drip-fed information for a while before having any context to this utterly swept away by visual horror – and although Escape Room tries to take it in an interesting strangers-but-mysteriously-linked direction, the script from Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik just doesn’t hold up. The narrative takes on far too little for the opening hour before packing on an overflow of exposition at the climax, by which point it’s clear this film is only gunning for one thing: and that’s not a nuanced narrative.

One thing Escape Room does well is accept the inherent hamminess of the concept of an evil escape room, and it never takes itself too seriously. This is clear even from the opening scene, where the final survivor (whose identity won’t be spoiled here) chews the scenery as the walls of the final trap close in on them. A decidedly odd editing choice, as it totally spoils who the final survivor is barely thirty seconds into the movie. Not a wise move – completely eliminating any desire to invest oneself into main characters we haven’t even met yet.

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(C) Columbia Pictures, Original Film and Sony Pictures

The film tries to focus on the quippy interactions between the group of escapees, and while some of the comedy does work, it’s not thanks to the quality of their character development. Each character seems to fit a different stereotype – the quiet student, the grizzled veteran, the selfish businessperson – and more often than not they lean on these archetypes pretty heavily, leaving little room for any semblance of emotional attachment to be made with these characters. Their backstories are routinely explored through flashbacks – which like clockwork, appear just after each devastating room – and often have no payoff: either a character dies soon after their backstory is revealed, or it simply doesn’t play a role in the plot. Gone are the days of Saw, where even though its characters were thinly-written, their backstories had a good connection to the traps – and this ostensibly happens here, but it’s so loosely integrated that it feels worthless.

That said, none of the character work matters once the horrors within the rooms start to manifest themselves. A strict PG-13 this clearly is, as barely a drop of blood is shed, and despite being threatening, the traps never seem to directly take any of them out by particularly violent means – you’ll see poisonous gas, unsupported flooring, and excruciating heat, but Escape Room shies away from the visceral violence that its spiritual predecessors prided themselves on. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the lack of direct violence allows the tension to manifest itself better. The choreography of the traps is pretty remarkable, and some of the designs are great – an upside-down pool room is by far the most inventive in the film, and a psychedelic polka-dot room is also a highlight – and the slick camerawork from Marc Spicer ensures the tension elicited from these puzzles and the ensuing panic around them is conveyed really successfully. The score from John Carey and Brian Tyler equally deserves plaudits for this, riffing off of the percussion-heavy Saw soundtracks to build upon the dread and panic that pervades these rooms.

Yet it just doesn’t come together amazingly. The structure is a little too rigid – with some dodgy CGI effect usually marking the destruction of one room and signalling a shift to the next – and its efforts to carry the torch of John Carpenter’s Videodrome in terms of commentary on consumerism and the increasing desire for more extreme content is certainly less poetic than its 1983 forefather.

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(C) Columbia Pictures, Original Film and Sony Pictures

But Escape Room isn’t trying to be that type of film – it’s a snappy, teen-friendly horror-thriller that prioritises tension over character, and often it’s broadly successful in doing so. Even something as little as dropping an 8 ball (it makes sense within the film) proves to be genuinely stressful, and credit has to goto director Adam Robitel for that, and not the screenwriters, whose script fails to make these characters anything more than horror clichés, and don’t build on the interesting ideas presented here.

Escape Room is switch-your-brain-off entertainment to the fullest extent: it works best when ramping up the tension with some well-choreographed, well-designed trap-based thrills, and some great room design. Yes, performances aren’t incredible, and this feels partly due to a script that fails to create any investment in these characters, which also leaves its pseudo-social comment far too late into proceedings. An interesting concept that shouldn’t have been relegated to PG-13 fodder, Escape Room works best as a puzzle-based thriller – but think too hard and you’ll probably outsmart it.

✭✭

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