Thursday, January 10, 2019

It Came From The Cineplex: Escape Room

Escape Room was written by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, and directed by Adam Robitel.

Schut previously wrote Season Of The Witch, along with some TV work. Melnik previously wrote... well, nothing of note. Escape Room appears to be her first theatrical work.

Robitel is an actor, writer and director. He previously directed The Taking Of Deborah Logan (?) and Insidious: The Last Key.

The film has a similar premise to 2018's Hell Fest, as both feature characters inside a "scare attraction" that turns out to be all too real. It also feels like a watered-down version of the Saw franchise, with elements of The Belko Experiment, Hostel and Cube thrown in for good measure. Think "Diverse Group Of People In A Small Space Being Killed Off One By One While An Evil Group Observes Them," and you'll have a pretty good idea what it's like.

The film taps into the public's distrust of the ultra rich and powerful, who most believe are secretly manipulating us all. In the world of the film, this turns out to be quite literally the case.

I had verrrrry low expectations for this film, especially after I found out it was released by Sony. As I love to point out in my reviews, my former employer's movies are almost always cinematic train wrecks (see Slender Man and Holmes And Watson for proof!). 

Somehow Escape Room turned out to be a decent little thriller! Believe me, no one's more surprised than I am to hear me say that. I guess if Sony goes to bat enough times, eventually they're bound to hit a line drive now and then.

The film's smartly written, tightly plotted and features some decent performances. The characters can be annoying at times, but they're fairly intelligent and don't do anything overtly stupid. Best of all there's not a single jump scare to be found in the entire run time! Honestly, you can't ask for much more than that these days.

Escape Room isn't the first movie about, er, an escape room. That honor would go to the imaginatively titled No Escape Room, a direct to video (I think?) film released in 2018. Both movies appear to have similar plots, and although I've not seen the earlier one, I have a feeling it's probably the lesser of the two.

Something tells me we'll see even more "Escape Rooms Gone Wrong" films before the fad burns itself out.

By the way, I went to an escape room during our family vacation last year. I freely admit I'm terrible at solving puzzles and mysteries, so I wasn't much help. Fortunately my nephew's pretty good at spotting and figuring out clues, and carried the rest of us. We had an hour to solve the room, and managed to unlock the door with just three minutes to spare. Definitely not a record, but hey, we made it!

So far Escape Room's grossed $19 million against its incredibly modest $9 million budget. That means its earned its money back and a bit more, so you know what that means! Look for Escape Room 2: Even Escapier in a year or two!


The Plot:
A disheveled young man (who we later find out is named Ben) falls through the ceiling of a tastefully decorated parlor. He looks around wildly, searching for a way out. Suddenly the far wall starts moving inward, crushing furniture and anything else in its path. Ben desperately looks for clues, and finds a puzzle above the fireplace. He manages to solve it, but the wall keeps coming and he's seemingly crushed to death. Welp, that was a short movie!

We then flash back to the previous day (grrr....), as we're introduced to six people from wildly different backgrounds. There's Zoey, a shy physics student, Ben, an alcoholic slacker, Jason, an egotistical stockbroker, Amanda, an Afghanistan War veteran, Mike, a jovial ex-miner and Danny, a nerdy game room enthusiast. 

Each of them receives a black puzzle cube from a mysterious source. After some difficulty, they all manage to open their cubes. Inside each is an invitation from The Gamemaster to the Minos Escape Room Facility, along with the chance to win $10,000 if they're successful.

The six arrive in the Minos waiting room, where an unseen receptionist tells them to take a seat. Eventually Ben becomes impatient and tries to leave. He accidentally breaks off the doorknob, which locks them inside. Suddenly the ceiling slides open, revealing a series of large heating coils. Danny, who's successfully beaten dozens of escape rooms in the past, realizes the waiting room is actually part of the game.

As the room heats up, the players begin looking for clues. Eventually more coils appear, causing the room to get even hotter. Danny geeks out at how "immersive" this particular room is. Amanda's less impressed, as the heat activates her PSTD and she starts freaking out.

Eventually Zoey discovers that pushing on the six coasters built into the room's coffee table opens up an air duct. Jason and Mike enter the duct and find a way out. Unfortunately all six coasters need to be pressed at the same time, so there's no way they can all escape. Zoey comes up with the idea to fill water glasses to weigh down the coasters. Unfortunately there's not enough water, but Ben remembers his hip flask and fills the last glass with booze. He and Danny manage to escape the room seconds before it's engulfed in a fiery explosion.

They exit the vent into a rustic cabin. The players then discuss the fact that the previous room was just blasted by actual fire. They realize that they're not in a game, and everything that's happening around them is all too real. 

Jason notices the cabin door features an alphabetic combination lock, and tells the others to look for a seven letter clue to open it. Ben sees a sign that reads, "You'll Go Down In History," and flashes back to a year ago, when he was driving drunk with his friends. As they sang Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Ben swerved into the path of a semi, killing everyone but him. He tells Jason to try "Rudolph" on the lock, and it opens.

They exit the cabin and seemingly find themselves outside in a snow-covered forest. Eventually they discover they're in a room painted to look like the outside. As they look for clues, the temperature begins dropping. They find a single red coat, and decide to take turns wearing it. This triggers a flashback in Jason, who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck after his friend— who was wearing an identical red coat— freaked out from hypothermia, jumped in the ocean and drowned.

Ben steps in a hole in the ice, while Mike finds a fishing pole in a tree (?). They use the pole to fish around in the hole, and pull up a block of ice with a key inside it. Danny asks Ben to toss him his lighter so they can melt the ice. Ben throws it short, and when Danny reaches down to pick it up, the ice cracks and he falls into the frigid water below. The others try to break through the ice to save him, but it's too thick and he drowns.

To add insult to injury, they've now lost the lighter as well. The five remaining players take turns melting the block of ice with their body heat. Eventually they're able to get the key and escape the room.

They then enter a pool hall that's built upside down for some reason. Jason finds a door , but unfortunately it lacks a knob and won't open. Suddenly a section of the "ceiling" (which is actually the floor in this room) drops out, revealing a ridiculously deep shaft. The players then race to figure out the solution before the ceiling disappears completely. Zoey solves a slider puzzle on the wall, which forms an image of an 8 ball.

After much puzzle solving, Amanda unlocks a small safe, which contains an 8 ball. They realize the ball is actually the missing doorknob. Amanda tries to make it across the room to the others, but the last bit of ceiling drops out beneath her. She holds onto a telephone cord for a few minutes, then tosses the 8 ball to Jason and lets go, falling into the void far below. Jason fastens the ball to the knob, and the four survivors escape.

They then enter a large medical ward, where they find hospital beds identical to the ones in which they all recovered. Zoey realizes they all have something in common— each one of them survived a horrific incident. She was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Vietnam. Ben lived through the wreck that killed his friends. Jason was the only one left alive after his boat capsized. And Mike survived a coal mine collapse that killed his brother. They also find records indicating everyone in Amanda's unit was killed by an IED except for her. And Danny's entire family perished from carbon monoxide poisoning.

The players realize the Gamemaster is deliberately filling the game with survivors, to see which one (if any) will be the super survivor.

Suddenly a countdown clock activates, indicating they have five minutes to solve the room or it'll be flooded with poison gas. They find an EKG machine and realize an optimal heart rate will unlock the exit. Jason hooks the machine to the overweight Mike, who has a higher heart rate than anyone else. It's not high enough though, so Jason shocks Mike with defib paddles to increase his heart rate (WRONG!). He jolts Mike several times, which ends up killing him!

Zoey then freaks out and begins smashing all the CCTV cameras in the room, figuring that's the last thing the Gamemaster would expect. Time runs out and the room begins filling with gas.

Jason realizes he had it backwards, and the EKG machine needs to register a super low rate. He attaches the electrodes to himself, and somehow manages to meditate in the midst of all the chaos and dramatically slow his heart. The door unlocks and Jason and Ben exit the room, but Zoey's seemingly overcome by the gas, just a few inches from an oxygen mask. Hmm...

Jason and Ben enter a room plastered with optical illusions. They see a hatch in the floor and try to open it, but it's coated with LSD or something worse. The drug causes them both to hallucinate and try to kill one another. They find a single dose of antidote, and begin fighting over it. Somehow Ben manages to kill the much more fit Jason, and injects himself. He then slips through the hatch in the floor.

Ben then lands in the parlor from the opening scene. Although it looked like he was crushed and killed, we see he actually managed to crawl through the fireplace at the last second and survive.

He emerges into an industrial space filled with crates and TV monitors. The Gamemaster appears, and explains to Ben that a shadowy cadre of ultra wealthy individuals lures survivors of accidents to the Minos facility, then bets on who will escape.

The Gamemaster then wraps a garrote around Ben's neck and begins strangling him. Suddenly Zoey appears and clocks the Gamemaster in the head, saving Ben. I guess she must have reached the oxygen mask after all?

Anyway, the Gamemaster tries to shoot them, as Ben and Zoey attack. They wrestle around a while, and Ben manages to the gun from him. He coldly shoots the Gamemaster twice in the head.

Sometime later, Ben and Zoey recover in a real hospital. Zoey then takes the police to the Minos building to show them the escape rooms, but of course the place is completely deserted.

Six months later, Ben meets Zoey for lunch. He's cleaned up his act, gotten a decent job and moved on from the incident. Zoey refuses to let it go, and says she's tracked down the Minos Corporation to New York City (did it really take six months to google their location?). She talks Ben into accompanying her there to expose the operation.

Cut to a doomed flight, as two stewardesses struggle to solve a puzzle before the plane crashes. They manage to unlock the cockpit door, and see the plane's heading right toward a mountain. One of the stewardesses grabs the controls and tries to pull up, but the plane crashes.

We then see the plane was just a simulation that's being prepared for Zoey and Ben's flight.

• The movie begins with Ben falling into an escape room by himself, and struggling to solve the puzzle before seemingly being killed. It then rewinds to a day earlier. This "Flashback Movie" cliche is my all-time least favorite story structure. From the very first frame, we know everyone but Ben's going to die, so why bother watching?

Fortunately it only LOOKS like that's what happened, as the film manages to pull a couple of surprises out of its hat and "subvert our expectations."

See, Rian Johnson? THIS is how it's done. It's perfectly fine to swerve the plot in an unexpected direction, but you need to steer it onto some sort of actual road, and not an into a dead-end alley. 

• All through the movie I assumed Zoey was the movie's Final Girl, so I was surprised to see her killed off at the beginning of the third act. Turns out the movie just wanted us to think she was dead, and she got better somehow. 

We then got both a Final Girl and a Final Boy, as she and Ben won the game and escaped together. This is officially the first time I've that particular story structure, so kudos to the writers!

• Part of the fun of an escape room is looking for clues and trying to solve the various puzzles. The film actually manages to simulate this, as it invites the audience to play along with the characters.

Well, sort of. For the first two rooms, anyway. In the first room, the players need to press six coasters at the same time in order to activate a door. The solution was there for anyone in the audience who was paying attention. Same goes for the second room— they needed a seven letter word to escape, and the clue was "You'll Go Down In History." As soon as I saw that I knew the answer was "Rudolph."

Hats off to the writers here, as this was a fantastic way to engage the viewers and get them invested in the story. 

Unfortunately this audience participation broke down after the second room, and never reappeared. I don't know of the writers simply couldn't think of any more puzzles, or they needed to get on with the story and the plot got in the way. Whatever the reason, it's too bad they didn't carry this idea through until the end.

• At the end of Escape Room we find out the Minos Group is funded by a sinister group of super-rich spectators, who bet on who'll survive the traps.

I wonder if these are the same wealthy perverts who abduct and sell college students in the Hostel movies? Or the same organization that pitted the office workers against one another in The Belko Experiment?

Who knows, maybe these movies are all part of the Escape Room Cinematic Universe!

• Tyler Labine plays Mike, the film's affable comic relief.

He's been in a ton of stuff, including one of my all-time favorites, Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil, a film I highly recommend. Seriously, drop everything and go watch it now. I need to do a belated review of it some day.

• As I mentioned earlier, Escape Room features a surprisingly intelligent script. OK, so it's not brilliant, but it's much smarter than most movies of its ilk.

For comparison, take a look at Jigsaw, the latest movie in the Saw franchise. In it, the Jigsaw Killer kidnaps five or six people and puts them in trap-filled warehouse. He's trying to punish them for their various crimes, so the traps are specifically tailored to each person. One of the characters killed a person by selling them a faulty motorcycle, so his trap involves a bike.

But... how could Jigsaw know that particular character would survive long enough to make it to the room with the motorcycle trap? What if he'd been the first one killed? The others would then look at the motorcycle trap and say, "That's weird. Wonder why that's here?" See what I mean? Dumb!

In Escape Room, the four surviving characters make it to a fake medical ward, containing replicas of ALL their hospital beds
— including those of the ones who'd already died. Obviously the Gamemaster would have no idea who'd be killed first, so he had to include all their beds. This proves the screenwriters put some actual thought into the script. Smart!

• Unfortunately the screenwriters squandered all those smarts in the very next scene. Jason figures out they need to record an abnormally high heart rate on an EKG machine in order to unlock the door. In order to do this, he uses a defib machine on Mike to INCREASE his heart rate.

Um... no. As I've said over and over on this blog for years, a defib machine STOPS your heart. It doesn't jump start it like a car battery, and it for goddamn sure doesn't make it beat faster!

• I'm a little fuzzy as to what's happening in the final scene of the movie. We see agents of the Minos Corp. testing out an escape room in an airplane simulator, which is obviously being set up for Zoey and Ben. 

So... is Minos going to endanger their actual flight? Take control of an honest to goodness real plane and disable it? Or are they somehow going to get Zoey and Ben inside the simulator and convince them they're on a real plane? If it's the latter, how they hell are they gonna manage that? Blindfold them before they board the "plane," so they don't realize it's fake?

I get that they mean to kill Zoey and Ben to shut 'em up, I'm just not clear on just how they're gonna go about it.

Escape Room is a smartly written, tightly paced little thriller that turned out way better than expected. It even managed to subvert my expectations, but in a good way. It isn't perfect, and it's not high art, but it was leaps and bounds better than any horror/thriller I've seen in the past year. I give it a B. I know I'm gonna be ridiculed for scoring it this high, but I liked the film and it entertained me, and in the end, isn't that a movie's job?

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