Puzzles can be fun—not just of the jigsaw variety, but literary (any Agatha Christie story) and cinematic (“The Usual Suspects”). But for a puzzle to work, it has to be coherent and fair, and “Escape Room” isn’t—it’s a jumbled mess in which what pass for clues are so random and frenzied that it’s often impossible to make sense of what’s going on—or care in the slightest.
The setup has six strangers lured to an elaborate escape room game by spiffy gift boxes with invitations inside them. One is Zoey (Taylor Russell), a terribly shy college student whose physics professor (Cornelius Geaney, Jr.) advises her to “do something scary” over break. Then there are Ben (Logan Miller), a scruffy dude working in the back room of a grocery store; Mike (Tyler Labine), a gregarious truck driver; Jason (Jay Ellis), an arrogant stock broker; Amanda (Deborah Ann Wolf), an Iraqi war veteran who’s badly scarred both physically and psychologically; and Danny (Nik Dodani), a gamer nerd. All have been seduced by the promise of a $10,000 prize.
The game, of course, turns out to be life-threatening, and it actually consists of a series of rooms rather than just one. The waiting room where all the characters meet is the first—it turns into a conflagration, and to escape they must work together to find the clues and, through them, a way out. Then there’s a rustic cabin of some sort, which morphs after a lock is opened into a freezing outdoor forest, which becomes an upside-down honky-tonk when a key is fished from a frozen lake. The next stop is a hospital ward, which leads to an encounter with an EKG machine that somehow takes the survivors to a surrealistic TV room and finally to a sumptuous library that threatens to implode. Each change is made by figuring out some riddle—the means of doing so are preposterously accidental—and as the crew proceeds from place to place some of them die until only one is supposedly left.
The screenplay by Bragi Schut and Maria Melnik is clearly indebted to Christie’s classic “And Then There Were None,” but the more probable inspiration is “Saw,” though with far less gore. There are attempts to explain what’s happening along the way, and eventually we’re told what ties all these characters together (something in their pasts, of course); and the close reveals–via a tiresome monologue delivered by a bored Yorick van Wageningen–what’s behind the whole elaborate enterprise (this is where the “Suspects” template is most apparent, though a now-obligatory reference to the dark web is added). An epilogue suggests a continuation that is devoutly not to be wished.
The cast are, as one might expect in this fare, inclined to overemote (Ellis is especially susceptible), but they are all game (excuse the pun), especially in taking on the action moments (see the upside-down room sequence in particular). The real heroes of the hour, though, are the craftsmen behind the scenes: production designer Edward Thomas, art director Mark Walker and set decorator Tracy Perkins have fashioned some elegant-looking locales (the icy forest and reversed bar, with its falling ceiling tiles, are the best), and cinematographer Marc Spicer arranges some very nice visuals. Unfortunately director Adam Robitel (who also takes a minor role in the ensemble) and editor Steve Mirkovich often muddy the waters with some clumsy staging and jerky cutting.
In the end “Escape Room” is a mediocre idea ineptly executed except for the visuals–an explosion of sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing. The title is entirely appropriate, as this is a movie that will have you searching for the exit sign long before it’s over.