Escape Room

If there's one thing you can consistently rely on, it's that the first weekend in January will deliver a lousy movie. All the "big" ones come out over Christmas and are still playing, so studios tend to toss out cheap-o horror movies or forgettable thrillers, which are usually gone by the end of the month. 2019 is kicking off with Escape Room, a movie that -- hold on! -- is actually kind of fun. Will wonders never cease?

The premise has a tantalizing hook: a group of strangers are invited to do an escape room -- one of those interactive games where you're locked in a room for an hour and have to find hidden clues or solve puzzles in order to get out. A $10,000 prize awaits if they can solve it. The difference here is that it's a series of interconnected rooms, each potentially fatal to our heroes.

These unlucky individuals are anxious plane crash survivor Zoey (Taylor Russell); traumatized war vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); cutthroat businessman Jason (Jay Ellis); struggling alcoholic Ben (Logan Miller); obsessed gamer Danny (Nik Dodani); and former miner Mike (Tyler Labine). The first room they enter turns into an oven and nearly cooks them. Each one gets progressively more dangerous, and more interesting, from there. As the players make their way through, some of them perish. The rest attempt to figure out why they've been placed in such a hostile environment.

You could probably make a really good psychological thriller in which a bunch of strangers with clashing personalities will die if they don't solve an escape room mystery within the allotted time. This is not that movie. Escape Room requires a complete suspension of disbelief, because virtually nothing in it is even remotely plausible. The rooms are so elaborate that they bear little resemblance to genuine escape rooms. (One of them is completely upside-down.) In many cases, this refusal to adhere to reality might be a liability. Here, though, the fast pace and abundance of energy sweeps you up, provided you are willing to submit yourself to the crazy concept.

Escape Room has obvious parallels to Cube (a group of people attempting to find their way out of a confined space) and the Saw pictures (an unseen puppet master forces individuals to play sick games in order to survive). The thing it reminded me most of, however, was the Final Destination series. Like that franchise, it takes itself seriously enough to generate tension, but not so seriously that you become distracted by all the improbabilities. There is definitely a tongue-in-cheek vibe just under the surface.

The actors are good, and care has been taken to give each of the characters some sort of backstory. Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) effectively makes use of the theme of each room. The third, involving heights, provides the most suspenseful sequence. Only at the end does Escape Room fall apart somewhat, with the requisite exposition dump that explains everything, followed immediately by the obligatory sequel set-up.

That's seven minutes out of a 100-minute movie. The rest of Escape Room is an enjoyable fantasy that asks you to play along with its over-the-top distortion of the businesses that inspired it. Meet the film on that level and there's a surprisingly good time to be had.

3 out of 4

Escape Room is rated PG-13 for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.