‘Es­cape Room’ leaves you pulling for the stylish booby traps

Ledger-Enquirer - - Front page - BY DREW LAZOR Philly.com

Tempt­ing as it may be to call “Es­cape Room” a para­ble for ex­is­tence in 2019, the truth is we’ve al­ready got the premise beat. Any­one who par­tic­i­pates in so­cial me­dia al­ready knows what it’s like to be trapped in­side a se­ries of sadis­tic tor­ture cham­bers, forced to per­form flaw­lessly for an au­di­ence of strangers. The only slightly psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, in­stead, has a more lu­cra­tive endgame in mind: min­ing our posthol­i­day malaise, with the idea that months of op­pres­sive mirth have primed us for some primo death scenes.

Di­rec­tor Adam Ro­bi­tel is hop­ping over from the cash-cow “In­sid­i­ous” se­ries 2019 – he helmed the fourth and most re­cent film, “The Last Key” – and he could have the mak­ings of a new low-stakes fran­chise on his hands, given the mal­leable na­ture of the con­cept. Six seem- in­gly ran­dom peo­ple, all ex­pe­ri­enc­ing vary­ing lev­els of suc­cess and sor­row, re­ceive a puz­zle box in the mail. Solv­ing it pro­vides each with an in­vi­ta­tion to par­tic­i­pate in a mys­te­ri­ous new es­cape room, with the prom­ise of a $10,000 cash prize to whomever can get out.

First con­ceived in Asia but now pop­u­lar the world over, these elab­o­rately de­signed venues are rigged with puz­zles you must solve to eman­ci­pate your­self, tac­tile chal­lenges pop­u­lar with am­a­teur sleuths and em­ploy­ers who see it as “team­build­ing.” “Es­cape Room”’s team is built, with min­i­mal cer­e­mony, in an un­re­mark­able of­fice wait­ing area.

The en­thu­si­as­tic power user (Nik Do­dani), sharp math stu­dent (Tay­lor Rus­sell, Net­flix’s “Lost in Space”), and cocky stock trader (Jay El­lis of “In­se­cure”) seem well-suited to work­ing with logic and num­bers. The other trio – a tough com­bat vet (”True Blood”’s Deb­o­rah Ann Woll), a grega- ri­ous trucker (Tyler Labine), and a booze­hound gro­cery clerk (Lo­gan Miller) – does not. While the six-pack feels each other out and squab­bles over strat­egy, the tem­per­a­ture starts to rise well above com­fort in the room – the first of many sug­ges­tions that some­thing’s not quite right. It still takes the crew close to an hour to con­clude that this es­cape room, while boast­ing out­stand­ing pro­duc­tion value, is ab­so­lutely try­ing to mur­der them.

The any­thing-goes, amuse­ment park na­ture of es­cape room de­sign, cou­pled with the fact that the open-ended premise al­lows for easy retroac­tive char­ac­ter-build­ing, means there’s a lot of meat on this bone. Ro­bi­tel, work­ing off a script from TV vets Bragi Schut and Maria Mel­nik, man­ages to shade in the con­nec­tive tis­sue around the char­ac­ters through re­veal­ing flash­backs.

But hon­estly, it’s more fun to root for the booby traps to win.

Hu­man con­vec­tion ovens, Death Star-style trash com­pactors, and a par­tic­u­larly tense se­quence in­volv­ing a frozen pond are a just a few of the buga­boos rolled out to get the job done. A PG-13 rat­ing, how­ever, means that all this crafts­man­ship is rel­a­tively blood­less.

While it fan­cies it­self a stylish hy­brid of “Saw” and “The Game,” “Es­cape Room” is much more evoca­tive of the 1997 low-bud­get cult hit “Cube,” a much gorier and far less stylish vari­a­tion on the same theme. Re­ally, the pro­duc­ers can and should be pur­su­ing the proven “Fi­nal Des­ti­na­tion” model – in­creas­ingly elab­o­rate and cre­ative deaths, with no tan­gi­ble jus­ti­fi­ca­tion (and none needed), in­flicted upon a down-to-clown cast that can be swept up and re­placed for the se­quel (s). The setup may seem re­cy­clable, but re­ally it’s dis­pos­able.

DAVID BLOOMER Sony Pic­tures

Deb­o­rah Ann Woll, clock­wise from left, Tay­lor Rus­sell, Jay El­lis, Lo­gan Miller and Nick Do­dani in “Es­cape Room.”

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