“ESCAPE ROOM” — 2½ stars — Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine; PG-13 (terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language); in general release; running time: 100 minutes
“Escape Room” is better than a lot of the January release cannon fodder at your local multiplex, but a movie that demands you pay close attention also has a way of making its flaws a bit too obvious.
Adam Robitel’s film follows six strangers who show up for an interactive puzzle game that winds up turning into a life-or-death survival of the fittest competition. After an intense prologue shows one of the characters trying to decipher his way out of a collapsing library, we flash back a few days to meet the people braving the game.
Zoey (Taylor Russell) is the shy but brilliant physics student. If “Escape Room” were a slasher film, she’d be the virginal “final girl” for sure. Ben (Logan Miller), the character we meet in the prologue, is going nowhere working the back room of a Chicago grocery store, and Jason (Jay Ellis) is a cocky stock trader with an instinct for competition.
Zoey, Ben and Jason get a curious invitation that leads them to Minos Escape Rooms, where they meet three more contestants. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an Iraq War vet who survived a roadside bomb, Mike (Tyler Labine) used to be a coal miner in West Virginia and Danny (Nik Dodani) is a veteran gamer who has already played more than 90 similar contests.
The first contestant to puzzle their way out of the game is promised a $10,000 prize, and the competition begins when the Minos waiting room suddenly turns into a 1,000 square foot oven. From here, the six contestants have to use clues in the room in order to find their way out before they are baked alive.
Once free of the oven room, the contestants are faced with their next life-threatening challenge, and everyone quickly catches onto the idea that they aren’t participating in any ordinary game. From here, “Escape Room” zeroes in on two questions: Who will survive this sadistic enterprise — if anyone — and why has this particular group of people been brought to the competition?
If “Escape Room” has a strength, it is maintaining a fun pace that keeps a steady degree of tension throughout most of the film. The individual game rooms are also fun — especially an upside-down pool hall that gradually breaks away into a bottomless pit while Petula Clark’s “Downtown” pipes through the PA system.
If you can go with the flow, “Escape Room” provides some escapist fun, but the same design that keeps you focused on the game also tends to make its next move pretty obvious. Anyone paying attention will know who is expendable and who will make it to the end of the game — and not just because the prologue already identified a surviving character.Comment on this story
Worse than that, once “Escape Room” has to step back and explain the big picture, the director gives us an overcooked finale that tries to do too much in a very clunky fashion.
Altogether, “Escape Room” scores some unexpected points given the circumstances, but falls short of what it might have been with another draft or two back in the writing stage.
Rating explained: Thanks to sequences of intense action and violence, along with sporadic vulgarity and profanity (including religious epithets and use of the F-word), "Escape Room" nets a middle-of-the-spectrum PG-13 rating.