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2019 is a year that's already overstuffed with familiar faces, as proven franchises are returning to the field of battle to continue their streaks or start anew with a reboot / reimagining. So if you're a scrappy newcomer like Escape Room that's looking to make a big impression, or at least a modest means, you're going to need to strike while the iron is hot. It's a good thing this film arrived when it did though, because while it's a mild entertainment that makes for easy off-season distraction, it would have been eaten alive during any other window of prime competition.
Escape Room puts six total strangers (Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Nik Dodani and Jay Ellis) into a situation resembling the popular craze that it takes its name from. Except, instead of just fun puzzles based on different themes of popular culture, these six contestants are dropped in the middle of harrowing circumstances, with extremely real consequences. The prize for making it through the experience: $10,000. The consequence for failing: death.
Escape Room borrows from two cinematic fast food franchises that started off promising, but became gradually more ridiculous as time went on: Saw and Resident Evil. In the case of the former, which serves as the predominant influence, the litany of traps, and even a line of dialogue reading that seems to exist because the screenwriter ran "Live or die, make your choice" through a thesaurus, make it all but readily apparent that this is meant to be a yearly franchise. There's even space for future ret-cons to fill in further backstory for our characters, as well as introduce new players to the pool, making for a pretty cozy pre-fabricated franchise up for option.
For Resident Evil's half of the influencial gene pool, a sinister conspiracy bent presents itself throughout the film at opportune moments in Escape Room's plot, with the final reveal cementing an effectively intriguing, but still rushed, hook for another round of mayhem. There's even a young female protagonist in Taylor Russell's Zoey that's primed to be the next Alice, should this film's sequel tease pay off.
But for all of Escape Room's appropriation from other franchises, there's still some interesting ideas that could have taken form throughout the twisted maze of activities we're shown in the film. Not to mention, for a PG-13 film that likes to try and be the next Saw, Escape Room does seem to have fun playing around with the puzzle solving aspect, rather than just delivering a load of contestants to the slaughter.
If you want to peg what makes Escape Room work, it's two key factors: adrenaline, and a convincing cast. One would assume that without those ingredients, director Adam Robitel's final product from the screenplay penned by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik would have fallen flat, or moved slow enough to easily see the cracks in the film's story. Or, for that matter, the shortcomings of the characters intended to play the cyphers the audience latches onto throughout the perilous journey.
In fact, if the ensemble of familiar and fresh faces (including Daredevil's Deborah Ann Woll, Insecure's Jay Ellis, and veteran character actor Tyler Labine) had been developed as more fulfilling characters, their struggles in Escape Room's various set-pieces might have hit harder. Alas, one of Escape Room's major weaknesses is the fact that it pays more attention to the puzzles than it does the players; which doesn't serve the story's overall ambition of having you care about said pawns.
Even secure in its puzzle solving ambitions, Escape Room falters with its first two puzzles, as they're not all that exciting, and they set up a potential twist that never pans out. However, once the third challenge comes into play, the stakes are raised and they pretty much stay that way throughout the film.
Playing to its strengths more than its weaknesses at that point, it's not hard to have fun with what remains, though Escape Room still falls short of essential viewing. As it stands, Escape Room is a fun morsel of junk food, ready to be devoured by its PG-13 target audience and anyone looking for something new in this desert of content known as January.
However, it could be the promising start to a franchise that could see its best work ahead of it, if the audience makes it worth Sony's while. It wouldn't hurt to see another entry in the entertaining series Escape Room is trying to build, but at the same time, it doesn't seem like something that'll break a lot of hearts if it doesn't happen.