Escape Room (2019)

*. Escape Room takes it premise, and its title, from a type of video game that has since morphed into real-life versions, forcing contestants to find ways out of various puzzling traps. Danny, one of the players in Escape Room, is apparently familiar with this form of entertainment, though it was new to me.
*. My own identification of the premise is that of a film genre I’ve referred to before as the Game of Death. Think Cube and Saw (the great progenitors), and such other low-budget iterations as House of 9, Breathing Room, Kill Theory, Nine Dead, Would You Rather, and Circle. That there have been so many films like this is the reason a lot of reviewers found Escape Room to be formulaic and clichéd.
*. What is the formula? I think we can identify a number of common elements. A small group of people, strangers to each other, have been brought together. They are being watched by a God-like observer, usually through security cameras. Also like God, the person running the show knows their darkest secrets and personal demons, and has seemingly infinite resources to test them. The trapped individuals then have to complete some task and find a way out of the trap they’re in. It’s a game, often played for mortal stakes.
*. All of this is part of Escape Room, to the extent that I don’t have to explain anything more about the plot. Basically a group of people volunteer to take part in an escape room game for a cash prize, only to find out that the winner will only be the last man (or woman) standing. Even the God-like forces running the show remain, as usual, mysterious. The Minos Corporation is rich, all-powerful, and omniscient but unknowable.
*. A more pressing question: Why is it that this particular formula became so popular at this time? Are we just bored by our staid, comfortable, even affluent, lives? Jay Ellis’s Jason does resemble Michael Douglas in The Game a bit. Or has modern life brought us to see ourselves as being lab rats in some kind of sinister experiment? It’s not too fanciful a thought, given the behaviour of certain social media networks. So score another one for the paranoid among us.
*. Here is the explanation offered by the Game Master (as distinguished from the Puzzle Maker) in Escape Room: “From the beginning of civilization we’ve known there was something captivating about watching human beings fight for their lives. That’s why we watch gladiator games, public executions, rubber-necking on the freeway. But now the world’s gone soft. Everything is safe. Everything is careful. So, we created a sport for people who still have a thirst for savagery, and we provided them with a box seat for life’s ultimate drama.” That’s “we” as in you in the audience watching Escape Room. “We” don’t play the game but get our kicks vicariously.
*. The formula lends itself to entertainment then, being the representation of a kind of game show. Escape Room, however, does little to advance the genre despite its bigger budget (I mean that relatively; most of these movies are excruciatingly cheap).
*. It’s hard to see where there’s much original here, right down to the invitations coming in Hellraiser boxes. The different trap rooms are nothing special, and the way the puzzles are solved struck me as highly implausible. The obligatory falling out and mutual suspicion within the group felt forced and contrived. And since when did Petula Clark’s “Downtown” become muzak or “shitty music” to be treated in such a demeaning way? That’s a great song.
*. Included with the DVD is the always-to-be-dreaded alternate ending. The reason these make me cringe is because they signal up front that the writer/director/producers didn’t know how to finish the movie. And that’s about as bad as it gets. I watched both endings and — surprise! — they’re both terrible. Unfortunately they wanted a sequel so they had to leave things open-ended. Nothing resolved. Nothing explained. Just more rooms to explore and another game to play.

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