Movie Review: “Escape Room”

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“The craftsmanship in here  is just terrifying!” one wag declares in “Escape Room,” a line perhaps meant to flatter the director or the screenwriters.

He’s talking about the production design, the intricate clockwork puzzle “rooms” that six strangers must reason their way out of…or DIE. And he’s got a point. From the upside down pool hall/tap room to the cabin in the (frozen) woods to the waiting room that turns into a literal oven — “What the literal HELL” one character opines, the best line from a movie in 2019 (so far) — the places our sextet must get out of are clever conceits.

But the movie? Preposterous at the start, growing more ridiculous the longer it goes on. Because it does go on, well after the climax, blundering its way into explanations that are unexplainable, offering up the logic of the set-up when there is no logic, trying to gin up one last sliver of sympathy for a cast we don’t really have the chance to care about as they’re picked off in the best Edgar Allen Poe/Agatha Christie tradition.

A brief opening act lets us meet the shy but very smart Zoey (Taylor Russell of “Lost in Space”), the high-powered stock broker (Jay Ellis of TV’s “Insecure”) and embittered grocery strockroom drunk Ben (Logan Miller).

They all have holes in their lives, and they all get these elaborate puzzle boxes, invitations to a night in an escape room, where they meet the fire-scarred Army vet (Deborah Ann Woll), the veteran trucker (Tyler Labine, the least convincing in this cast) and the annoying escape-room/gaming nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), who enthusiastically explains the “real life video game” concept of escape rooms to the rest.

In an instant, they’re hurled into their first predicament. Only it’s too real, the consequences plainly too deadly. They collect clues and get out by the skin of their teeth. A couple fume, “Who DOES this?” They get what just happened. “Game Boy” buzzes “Talk about IMMERSIVE” and promises that “It’ll be fun from now on.”

If by “fun” he means death by baking, death by drowning, death by falling, death at the hands of fellow competitors.  Of course he’s wrong.

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The assorted puzzles and clues — “You’ll go down in history” hints at what famous Christmas song? What might the presence of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” portend in a room that turns into “an Easy Bake Oven?” — are pallid.

We’ve already seen a prologue “three days earlier,” where one character who can’t read Latin scrambles to escape a “Star Wars” trash compactor room with “Acta est Fabula” (the story is done) carved on the walls.

But flashbacks give us the trauma that tested each game player earlier in life, even as parts of the game customized to play on each character’s worst fears.

Yes, the “Game Master” is omnipotent, even though his name isn’t “Jigsaw.”

None of the actors save for Woll have much in their character’s construction to make them memorable. Ellis has a nice, nasty Darwinian edge to play in dog-eat-dog Jason.

Nobody should expect much out of a film released in the tundra of the January cinema season, but I was willing to buy into this as a time-killer until the movie, like the games and game-master, stops playing by the rules it sets up.

And the year may be young, but Hollywood is going to be hard pressed to come up with a climax that is more anti-climactic than the many anti-climaxes that bring down the curtain on “Escape Room,” the first official dog of the new year.

1half-star

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language

Cast: Taylor Russell, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Logan Miller, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis,

Credits: Directed by Adam Robitel, script by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik. A Columbia release.

Running time: 1:40

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