'Escape Room' Review: A Surprisingly Fun Thriller That Completely Falls Apart In The End

There's something extra frustrating about wasted potential, especially when it comes to a movie. A film that's bad from start to finish is easy to shrug off and forget all about. But the movies that almost get there; that almost stick the landing, only to falter and twist an ankle...those are the films that stick in your craw. "What could have been!" you think, as you exit the theater, shaking your head, trying to piece together where it all went so terribly, cataclysmically wrong.

That's the type of film Escape Room is. For almost its entire runtime, this fast, exhilarating thriller from director Adam Robitel wins you over, and has you pleasantly surprised. And then...yikes. The walls come crumbling down.

The horror genre goes through periods where it recycles what came before. The '90s saw a slasher revival, and for a good chunk of the 2010s, we've had a kind of '80s revival, with horror filmmakers shamelessly ripping-off John Carpenter. Are we now at the start of a new cycle? A time where horror movies begin to go back to the early 2000s, when Saw reigned supreme? That's what Escape Room, with its clever, seemingly impossible death traps, seems to suggest. But to Escape Room's credit, it never turns into the industrial grunge-scape that so embodied the Saw franchise. It's not nearly as gory, either.

If Escape Room is anything, it's a triumph of production design. The Saw franchise films tended to blur together, with one death trap blending mindlessly with the next. Escape Room is smart enough to make its elaborate set-pieces distinct, and the results are often captivating. We get a room that's made-up to look like a wintry landscape; another room that's the equivalent of a giant oven; another that resembles a billiard hall that's completely upside down, forcing the character to walk on the "ceiling"; a trippy, spinning location triggering an LSD trip. It all looks wonderful, and unique, and exciting – you can get lost in the sets here. That commendable set design is just one of several elements that tricks you into thinking that maybe, just maybe, a movie called Escape Room is going to be legitimately good! But no. It's not to be.

Like various Saw sequels, the main characters in Escape Room all have troubled incidents from their past that haunt them, and the rooms they find themselves in are designed to reflect those incidents, for maximum traumatic effect. The script, by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik, takes a clever approach to introducing us to several of these characters, and their particular personalities, when they receive an invite to a mystery escape room challenge. The invite comes in the form of a sleek black puzzle box that has to be solved. Zoey (Taylor Russell), a whiz-kid studying physics, is able to solve the puzzle with her own wits almost immediately. Ben (Logan Miller), an under-achieving grocery clerk, tries to smash the box open with a hammer. And corporate raider Jason (Jay Ellis) scans YouTube videos to find the solution. Touches like this are peppered all through Escape Room, and successful serve as character building exercises. We grow to know these people, and by knowing them, we actually start to care about them.

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Zoey, Ben and Jason aren't alone in the challenge. There's also Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), a former solider covered with burn scars; Mike (Tyler Labine), a burly, dad-joke spouting nice guy; and Danny (Nik Dodani), an escape room fanatic who is very excited to get this show on the road. But the participants – who all hope to win $10,000 – soon learn that they're not facing a normal escape room. Instead, each challenge they're placed in is a death trap – searing flames, freezing water, breakaway floors, crushing walls. Each set-up more elaborate than the next.

Robitel directs the hell out of these sequences, building genuine, palpable tension, and knowing just where to place the camera for maximum effect. It's easy to get wrapped-up alongside the characters, trying to solve the various puzzles by using clues right alongside them. Sure, some of the puzzles are painfully easy – at one point they have to spell out RUDOLPH after receiving the clue "You'll go down in history!" (I'm not kidding). But it's fairly thrilling, and even a little scary, to become engrossed in all of this ticking-clock stuff.

It helps that most of the actors elevate the material they're working with. Almost everyone here is saddled with some truly groan-worthy dialogue – Miller in particular, as Ben, is stuck with clunky quips that are never, ever funny. But they give it their all. Woll is the stand-out, bringing a vulnerability to her character that's disarming. And Labine, as aw-shucks fella Mike, is a hoot. The only performer who falters a bit is Russell, who never quite seems to have a hand on the shy, quiet Zoey.

For most of its length, Escape Room was so well directed, and so stimulating, that I was willing to overlook these flaws. But at some point, it all goes horribly wrong. I have no evidence of this, but I am 99.9% sure that at some point, test audience reactions wrecked Escape Room. The thriller is chugging along nicely, and then it becomes apparent some asshole put a penny on the track, and derailed the whole train. As a result, the last twenty or so minutes descend into anarchy as the movie breathlessly attempts to fill in the blanks and explain what's been going on. But here's the thing: I didn't need it to be explained. I didn't need a logical answer. I would've been perfectly happy to have been left in the dark. But at some point, a producer, or a studio exec, clearly looked at whatever the original ending of this movie was, and said: "Is there anyway we can make this more...stupid?"

Escape Room is too much fun to completely disregard. A movie about killer escape rooms really has no business being this electrifying. But the climax confounds me, and leaves me feeling ripped-off and even a little angry. Why did it have to end up this way? Why did the movie have to collapse under the weight of its own ambition? The answer may never be known. Until maybe the Blu-ray release arrives, and provides us with better alternate endings./Film Rating: 6 out of 10