Escape Room film review: game on or game over?

Does Adam Robitel’s horror Escape Room capture its audience as well as its victims?

In a world where even the most unlikely of popular games are getting the Hollywood treatment — from apps and board games to tag — an escape room film almost seems to be expected. But how could it be entertaining and engaging enough to justify watching the game, instead of simply playing it?

Adam Robitel’s slick, good-looking film takes up the challenge, and succeeds to a point. The tension is ramped up of course: these rooms are made for killing, significantly increasing the adrenaline rush felt when a character succeeds or fails. But more interesting is the way in which the film raises the stakes by suggesting that the deadly traps ensnaring the characters extend well past the walls of their cage.

With elusive flashbacks, the film gradually unveils the backstory of each protagonist, and the reason why these strangers are united in this scenario becomes clear. For a fleeting moment, it almost feels like the return of the good old days of Final Destination and Saw. But this conspiracy story proves more frustrating than thrilling, the characters inevitably being slower on the uptake than us in the comfort of our seats, free from physical or psychological duress. A smarter, more entertaining movie might have played with our paranoid impulses, leaving the question of a secret plot uncertain, as in David Fincher’s brilliant thriller The Game. As it is, the delay between our understanding and the characters’ becomes a drag.

An obligatory reference point, the Saw franchise avoids this issue entirely by being on the side of the mastermind behind the traps almost from the very start. We know why Jigsaw’s victims are being punished, which allows us to somehow ‘enjoy’ their predicament. Escape Room, by contrast, is too interested in its characters as people to allow for such sadistic, genre-bound fun. And there’s the rub: caught between genre thrills and a desire to do its characters justice, Escape Room falls short on both.