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With: Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Tyler Labine, Nik Dodani, Jay Ellis
Written by: Bragi F. Schut, Maria Melnik, based on a story by Bragi F. Schut
Directed by: Adam Robitel
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 01/04/2019
IMDB

Escape Room (2019)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Clue-ing the Scenery

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

True cineastes know that January movies are generally the unwanted castoffs, the riffraff that wouldn't play well with others during summers or holidays or awards time. But sometimes one person's trash is another person's treasure, and Escape Room somewhat justifies that sentiment.

Opening January 4, 2019, the suspense-thriller Escape Room is a little like a lot of other movies, but is also its own kind of movie.

It's a little like the Saw movies, but not scary or gory. It's a little like The Belko Experiment, but with less to say about human nature. It's a little like David Fincher's The Game, but not afraid to be a genre film. And it's a little like Vincenzo Natali's Cube but a little less... far out.

It's compact and tight, set in a confined series of spaces, over a finite period of time, with a set of characters that are strangers thrown together, just as we in the audience are thrown in with them.

The characters discover each other's strengths and weaknesses, judge each other, and then reconsider, and eventually begin to care. And we do too.

Essentially, the story has mysterious invitations sent to six people to a new kind of escape room.

They are: ultra-shy, ultra-smart student Zoey (Taylor Russell), slobbish supermarket clerk Ben (Logan Miller), tough ex-military Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), good ol' boy truck driver Mike (Tyler Labine), slick, corporate sales guy Jason (Jay Ellis), and veteran escape room geek Danny (Nik Dodani).

Some of these characters come out of their shells during the course of the story, while others reveal their darker sides.

Their adventure begins as the waiting room itself is revealed as the first room, slowly turning into an inferno as the six doggedly try to find the clues to escape.

The rooms become more and more astonishing, including a wintry landscape over a frozen lake, an upside-down pool room, an old library, and a psychedelic space filled with swirling black-and-white checkerboards (note: this sequence comes with a seizure warning).

Eventually, even as characters are eliminated, the remaining characters discover the mysterious connection between them that drew them together.

Directed by Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key), Escape Room perhaps goes a little too far with its flash-forward opening sequence that probably ought to have been put back where it belonged, and its denouncement is somewhat absurd, but a tightly-snapped, devil-may-care finale is fiendishly satisfying.

Screenwriters Maria Melnik and Bragi F. Schut — both making their big-screen debut after working in television and short films — nicely combine a sense of brainy puzzles and bodily reactions.

It's tempting to try to solve their little enigmas as the movie goes along, but it's awfully difficult amidst its distractingly gleeful tension and dread. Thankfully, despite this, the characters rarely do anything unforgivably dumb that an audience member couldn't have done better.

While Escape Room succeeds in unlocking raw, primal human fear and adrenaline, it also tries, needlessly and a little half-heartedly, to justify its reasons for doing so at the eleventh hour.

But that's just a minor dead end. Eventually Escape Room circles back around, finds the finish, and wins both our hearts and our minds.

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