The first new release film of any year is often not very good in my experience. I have been writing about movies on the internet for nearly 20 years, dating back to having that Microsoft’s now rather ludicrous Web TV. Eventually, I came to dread the start of the year at the movies. Sure, there were Oscar movies that arrived late but the new-new movies of the year, especially the first new release of any year tended to be awful year after year.
That trend was only recently bucked just last year when director Adam Robitel delivered the terrific final chapter of the Insidious franchise, Insidious The Last Key. I really enjoyed Insidious The Last Key and while the rest of January lived up to the reputation that month has earned as a dumping ground for studios looking to bury their trash while we were dazzled by the Award winner, at least the first new release of the year was entertaining.
What luck then to find that director Adam Robitel was leading off the year again, this time with a new horror effort called Escape Room. Sure, I was worried when the film appeared to have not been shown to critics but then, at the last minute, reviews started showing up and they weren’t all bad. And, indeed, much like Insidious The Last Key was pretty good this time last year, Escape Room is pretty good kicking off this year.
Escape Room stars Taylor Russell as Zoey, a shy and mousey college student who receives a strange package. Inside is a puzzle box and inside that puzzle box is an invitation to a fully immersive gaming experience called an Escape Room. For the unaware, Escape Rooms are a real deal experience. The concept has you locked inside a room with a time limit to discover all of the clues and free yourself from the room.
We also meet two other characters in the run-up to arriving at the Escape Room of the title. Jason (Jay Ellis) is a high powered stock broker who receives a gift from one of his clients. Inside is the same kind of puzzle box sent to Zoey. He and Zoey do not know each other but they will meet at the Escape Room along with Ben (Logan Miller), a supermarket employee who gets a puzzle box from his employer.
Once at the Escape Room we meet three more characters, Amanda (Debra Ann Woll, from Netflix’s Daredevil) an Iraq war veteran, Mike (Tyler Labine) a truck driver, and Danny (Nk Dodani) who is an Escape Room obsessive. It’s Danny who figures out that the waiting room where they first meet is actually the first of several Escape Rooms they will experience. He’s also the last to accept that these are more than Escape Rooms, they are genuine death traps that they must solve in order to survive.
What Escape Room does so much better than most recent horror films is give us characters that we genuinely care about. Each of these six characters are genuinely good people with character flaws and a deep and abiding compassion. Jason is set up as the sort of villain of the group, the one who appears to put his own survival ahead of everyone else’s but even he appears to be a good person who gets pushed to an extreme and reacting somewhat poorly.
There is not one of these characters that I hated so much I hoped they wouldn’t survive. The worst trend in horror of this young century was the move to make villains the center of horror movies and make their victims so hateful, obnoxious and self-involved that we didn’t mind so much when they were hacked up. Escape Room goes the complete opposite direction and creates six characters that we invest in and care about.
Yes, they are character types, recognizable for some stock characteristics, but they had a genuine quality and compassion for one another that is incredibly refreshing from a genre that revels in the survival of the fittest archetype and views compassion as weakness. I came to adore each of these characters to the point that when one of them sacrifices themselves to save the others I was honestly moved and sad that the character was gone.
Escape Room does have its issues. The film does feel like assembled pieces from other horror movies such as Hostel and Saw but minus that nastiness. Don’t get me wrong, I truly enjoy the Saw franchise, but even that series tended fall back on nasty characters rather than good ones. Hostel meanwhile, was wall to wall vile people to the point that I wanted to nuke the entire movie and the sick minded writer-director who assembled it.
If the character from Escape Room were in a Saw movie, they’d all survive because these characters immediately embrace the ethos of working together and trusting each others strengths and making up for each other's weaknesses. This is especially true of Taylor Russell’s Zoey who is a tremendously resourceful and compelling protagonist. She is so sweet that you assume she’s weak but Russell invests her with a rigorous intelligence.
I am really happy to say that I kind of loved Escape Room. I did wish it had only ended once, the two sequel teases did push the wrong buttons for the potential franchise of Escape Room movies but as long as Adam Robitel is at the helm along with the witty and smart writing team of Bragi F Schut and Maria Melnik, nailing their first Hollywood script, I am on board for even more Escape Room fun.