‘Escape Room’ Gets Lost in the Maze of Its Own Absurdities

So here is “Escape Room,” the first trashy horror offering of 2019 but instead of chills it only inspires the question, “why?” Why should we care for these characters? Why should we care for the premise? The film hopes the answer lies in the current fad for the escape room experience, in which people pay to be entrapped in a physical adventure during which they must solve clues to get out. Like many horror thrillers, this one takes something from contemporary popular culture and attempts to mold it into a decent movie. Yet it falls into the very trap of becoming too much of an absurd game, with characters that are almost no better than props, and a plot that flies off the rails and into oblivion.

We first meet three individuals from completely different worlds. Ben (Logan Miller) who works at a grocery store and drinks to escape from his dreary life and Jason (Jay Ellis), a cocky stockbroker and Zoey (Taylor Russell), a science major obsessed with patterns and puzzles. They all receive a strange, black cube with an invitation to visit the headquarters of the Maze Corporation, which specializes in escape rooms. There they meet Danny (Nik Dodani), a nerd obsessed with escape rooms, Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), an army veteran with PTSD who is lured by the promise of $10,000, and Mike (Tyler Labine), a middle-aged truck driver who knows nothing about escape rooms but also wants some easy money. Once the experience begins it dawns on the group that this is no regular game, it’s literally life or death. Each new escape room in the game features its own, deadly traps including ceiling furnaces, bottomless pits, frozen rivers prone to breaking apart and hospital rooms with poison gas. The group also realizes they are being watched by a Game Master bent on torturing them for whatever sick scheme.

This is the second time in a row that the New Year movie season kicks off with a film by Adam Robitel, who last January offered us “Insidious: The Last Key.” That actually was not the worst of the “Insidious” films and featured some decent atmosphere and goofy yet entertaining characters. “Escape Room” is Robitel on speed, directing with no purpose other than to kill off his cast. The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik is a thriller replay of what should be termed the “Willy Wonka effect,” meaning that each character in the group begins to be picked off by the plot’s overlord, leaving the purest soul to survive. But these people are barely given time to make us care, they instead function as convenient bodies for the whole escape room concept. Robitel and the writers continue the funny trend of attempting to make their victims a bit relevant to viewers by having them represent different aspects of American life. Ben is the lonely depressed guy who survived a drunken car crash, Jason is a narcissistic capitalist who goes to the gym and mocks those he perceives as weak, Danny is the nerd who takes games as religion, Amanda is the Iraq veteran with trauma, Mike is working class America and Zoey is the sweet, spotless genius who everyone soon depends on to crack the game’s clues. Need you be told who dies in this group and who makes it out? Although there is one death that might surprise you at how soon it takes place and how pointless it made a lot of previous set ups.

It almost doesn’t matter who these characters are, they could all be Whole Foods workers or firemen, because the movie barely pretends to have any kind of motivation beyond just having them run and scream, claw and die off in each escape room. The real characters are the rooms, which become so exaggerated that there’s little terror because little of it feels plausible. A waiting room has heaters that nearly roast everyone, in a frozen lake room the group are forced to huddle for who knows how long to melt the ice around a key which they desperately need. The most interesting room is an upside down billiard’s bar. The least interesting is a hospital room where of course the villain has somehow compiled records of everyone’s past tragedies. You’ve seen every plight the characters endure before, from hanging over bottomless voids to being forced to electroshock each other, someone must fall into the frozen lake and in another room two characters start fighting over the antidote to something that feels like any regular, movie acid trip. And what would an “Escape Room” movie be without the required, contracting walls that could smoosh you into a bloody pulp? Without spoiling, it must be said that the film’s opening scene is fatal to the overall suspense, because it already shows us who is left alive.

Fans of recent, absurd romps like “Unfriended: Dark Web” will either love or roll their eyes at the ending, which recycles every paranoid, internet-based conspiracy theory about how we are at the mercy of secret forces. It is a habit of this kind of thriller, even the better ones, to just spiral out of control near the end, with a plot twist that becomes so ludicrous you can only chuckle. The music by John Carey and Brian Tyler is rollicking synth that never stops to let the story generate at least a little eeriness. Oh, wait, there is no story.

“Escape Room” ends with the obvious signs of a sequel being planned. Where else it could go is hard to guess, but for now this concept is trapped by its own tricks, inspiring us to prefer escaping to a better distraction.

Escape Room” opens Jan. 4 in theaters nationwide.