The premise is simple: A group of folks who don’t know each other receive a mysterious box in the mail. Inside this elaborate gift — think the Hellraiser cube, only a wee bit more benign — is an invite for a free session at an exclusive Chicago escape room. They show up on the appointed date and time, all of them trying to figure out why a corporate hotshot (Insecure‘s Jay Ellis), a shy college student (Taylor Russell), an Iraqi War Veteran (Deborah Ann Woll), a trucker (Tyler Labine), a chain-smoking misfit (Logan Miller) and a gaming-enthusiast nerd apparently ordered from Central Casting (Nik Dodani) would be gathered together for an afternoon of team-building exercises.
Better save that brain power, people, because the penthouse waiting room where you’re discussing possible reasons for this random shindig while idly flipping through magazines? It’s part of the game! And yes, that ceiling grate and those pillars did just turn into makeshift oven burners! Puzzle clues are spotted and sussed out, last-minute exits are made before this ragtag band of players become human BBQ and safety is temporarily achieved. They also figure out that the promise of an “immersive experience” was really a euphemism for “repeated life-or-death trials designed for maximum violent fatalities.” It’s all over but the shouting — and the baroque obstacle courses revolving around hypothermia, drowning, plummeting down elevator shafts, poison gas, etc.
Like Ouija boards and amusement parks, the newly popular past time of getting locked into a customized room with your friends and having to go full-tilt Hercule Poirot to find your way out is ripe for the horrorsploitation racket. (Once some filmmaker figures out how to place an escape room inside an amusement park filled with Ouija boards, they are going to sprain their wrists from counting piles of money.) And while using your wits and smarts is an essential part of beating the clock with these outings, Escape Room is pure No-Brainer Scary Moviemaking 101: get some photogenic actors, figure out creative ways to off them, push some phobic buttons, leave things open for a franchise and stay on-brand. Which director Adam Robitel and screenwriters Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik do really well, for a little while. They know how to milk an individual set piece for thrills and chills — especially if it involves, say, an upside down pool room where the floor boards keep dropping out to reveal a 10-story free-fall into the abyss.
Yes, there is indeed a connection between all these seemingly disparate folks, one besides the fact that they all live in a universe in which no one has ever seen any of the Saw movies. Once this pattern is revealed and the film becomes more of a stuck-on-simmer conspiracy potboiler, the returns begin exponentially diminishing. Even the digs at multinational corporate manipulation and class disparity — the filthy rich play a part in these evil shenanigans, but this is America; don’t they always? — feel a little phoned in. You’ll see better horror movies this year. You’ll see worse movies this January. You may even see more craven cash-ins on pop fads over the next 12 months. (Fingers crossed that 2019 is the year we finally get the Great Cinnamon Eating and/or Ice-Bucket Challenge Thriller!) The best thing you can say about Escape Room is that for most of it, you’re not desperately searching for the exit sign.