Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Directed by: Adam Robitel
At first glance, director Adam Robitel’s ESCAPE ROOM seems like it might be the kind of movie rushed out by a studio to capitalize on the ever-growing popularity of a cultural phenomenon. The blessed surprise is that while it does mark a specific time period in pop culture, its layers of shrewd smarts, pulse-pounding thrills and unrelenting action make for a terrific cult classic. Not only is this briskly-paced, taut thriller a fun, fresh, modern hybrid of THE GAME, CUBE and FINAL DESTINATION, it’s solid escapism as well.
Painfully shy, smart college student Zoey (Taylor Russell) is looking to break out of her shell. Around the time she’s encouraged to try something new, a mystery puzzle box arrives, beckoning her to join an exciting escape room challenge. She follows the address to a non-descript building downtown where she meets five other strangers – guarded war vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), friendly blue-collar worker Mike (Tyler Labine), competitive stock broker Jason (Jay Ellis), sad stock boy Ben (Logan Miller) and annoying escape room expert Danny (Nik Dodani). As it turns out, they’ve all been specially selected (for reasons revealed in the third act) to test a mysterious corporation’s “most immersive escape room experience yet,” a physical challenge where the stakes are deadly. They must then use only their wits and wisdom for survival.
The strongest, show-stopping segments are the first three rooms. Edward Thomas’ stellar production design and the work of the visual effects team fully immerse audiences into each of these menacing, claustrophobic worlds. Marc Spicer’s cinematography adds a further rich polish. In the oven room, the characters build their group dynamic as Steve Mirkovich’s editing crackles with energy. In the cabin built on ice room, we learn a little more about a few of the players’ backstories and see them work together in a less functional manner. In the billiard room (the room that had me on the edge of my seat), the psychological and emotional stakes are raised now that they know they could die. That said, having our story begin in media res (an unnecessary attention grabbing technique more filmmakers should resist) in the library room works at a slight detriment to some of the surprise.
Part of the magic of what makes this film succeed is that the audience is rarely ahead of the gang in terms of solving the clues. Each room from which the players are forced to escape engages our intellect. It’s entertaining to see them figure out the puzzles in these masterfully designed ticking clock scenarios. Composers Brian Tyler and John Carey’s score augments these sequences, giving them a gripping soundscape.
The other part is character design. The clever ways in which Robitel and screenwriters Bragi F. Shut and Maria Melnik peel away the onion-like layers give us a direct look into their characters’ damaged selfish and selfless psyches. We quickly get a clear picture of their emotional scars, and their character drive remains at the forefront of their actions. Though the filmmakers don’t completely avoid expository dialogue, and not every character gets deserved time in the spotlight (two are dealt short shrift before they expire), their personal pasts are shown with artful panache. Plus, the filmmakers infuse the narrative with hearty themes revolving around sacrifice and salvation. The sentiments about not being your mistakes reverberate long after the credits roll.
ESCAPE ROOM opens on January 4.