Part Hunger Games, part bad early-2000s thriller, Escape Room promises an edge-of-your-seat and unsettling take on a current trend. It just never makes good. As best crystallized by a nosedive in the third act, this is a horror that cannot follow its own logic or decide how much of its own behind-the-scenes mythos to jump into. Worse still, much of the information we learn before and during the game never pays off in a meaningful way, leaving Escape Room feeling like an unsatisfying, low-stakes, made-for-TV movie.
The promising premise it squanders is six strangers receive mysterious invitations to participate in an exclusive and highly competitive Minos escape room. It doesn’t take long for them to realize that this is no game. The consequences are deadly, and the clues have deeply personal significance to various members of the group. Put on the trail of finding a mysterious “Dr. Yutang Wu,” the half-dozen characters fight for their lives, reckon with their pasts, and try to keep from killing one another.
Some, like veteran escape room player Danny (Nike Dodani, Alex Strangelove) and savant physics student Zoey (Taylor Russell of Lost in Space) are helpful; veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll, True Blood, Daredevil) is an asset to the group but has her own secrets; and friendly dad-type Mike (Tyler Labine, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) tries to keep spirits high. Meanwhile, hgh-achieving finance bro Jason (Jay Ellis, Insecure) refuses to fail while burnout Ben (Logan Miller, Love, Simon) is just trying to keep it together.
The setup of escape rooms tailored to the individual fears of the people trying to escape them is an intriguing one. But it’s deployed intermittently, with some details, like Mike’s childhood dog, Amanda, appearing as taxidermy stuffing yet never actually shown in the same scene as her owner. Only some of the characters are made to face their fears. Others we barely learn anything about in spite of lengthy screen-time.
The strength of the movie is largely in the group of players. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you probably recognize their faces. They’re all a bit too talented to be in something that feels this dated, although they do an excellent job with the material they’re given. Luckily, the writing is at its best when it comes to the six main characters. There are still issues—one character has essentially no development at all, while another has a rushed revelation late in the game. But for the others, the script makes decent work of quickly establishing who they are versus how they are perceived.
It’s the uneven quality that makes Escape Room feel most like a rough draft; there are good elements here that could be salvaged, and others that could be improved with some TLC, but as-is, it’s a bumpy ride. Some of the deaths are genuinely effecting, especially one involving a billiard room, but others are rushed and don’t follow the movie’s and the escape rooms’ own internal logic, like a late in the movie puzzle room with no discernible connection to anyone’s past.
Escape Room occupies the bloodless, plenty of jokes, will-they-make-it, puzzle box thriller corner of the horror genre. It’s the kind of movie a person might watch at a friend’s house in high school, but even then, there are better movies on Netflix if you’re hoping for an edge of your seat thrill ride. Only the second act will really get any blood pumping, as the first spends a lot of time on exposition that largely does not pay off, and the third is when the conceit of the escape rooms falls apart and the movie itself doesn’t know quite how (or when) to end.
And about that ending: it is thoroughly unsatisfying and makes Escape Room feel cheaper and goofier, like a chintzy grab for a sequel before it’s even bothered to impress its first audience. There are a few better moments where the movie could have ended, but where it does conclude plays as if this is a test screening trying out multiple endings, and not a polished final product.
So much about Escape Room feels like a rough draft. A concept that’s promising, but not fully thought out (were their loved ones in on it? Who attends these parties? Is this just The Hunger Games?), a mythos that we either need more or less of (should we care who the shadowy puzzle maker is? Do we know them already?), and several places that would have made better, more satisfying endings. In a time when there’s so much excellent and interesting work being done in the horror genre on the big and small screens, don’t waste your time with something that’s not all that thrilling or fun.