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Schultz reviews: “Escape Room”

Schultz reviews: “Escape Room”

Carl Schultz


“Escape Room” Distributed by Sony Pictures Releasing, 109 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released Jan. 4:


The first week of the new year is traditionally one of the slowest times of the year for new motion picture releases.


Usually, the major studios release all of the biggest and most expensive new pictures during Christmastime and the weeks leading up to the holiday, and many of those movies are still in first-run circulation for a few weeks afterward. This year such movies include ”Aquaman,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Bumblebee” and even the surprise hit “Bohemian Rhapsody,” now in its tenth week of release. If the movies placed in circulation during the holiday season are among the year’s biggest, the movies released during the weeks following are among the smallest.


The first major release of 2019 is “Escape Room,” a minor effort from Columbia Pictures and its parent company, Sony Pictures Releasing. “Escape Room” was produced mostly by rookie filmmakers, contains no major stars and was completed on a relatively minuscule budget of $9 million. By comparison, the Warner Bros. Christmastime hit “Aquaman” boasted a production budget reportedly in the neighborhood of $200 million.


In “Escape Room,” six disparate individuals are invited to participate in the evaluation of a new virtual game, which places them into frighteningly realistic and life-threatening situations. The participants must survive the imaginary perils and escape the rooms by using their wits and problem-solving skills. But as the game intensifies, it becomes more and more apparent to the players that the perils are real ... and that the six strangers have more in common than they originally realized.


With comparisons to the popular “Saw” pictures and peddled by the studio mostly toward the audience, which traditionally attends horror pictures, “Escape Room” is actually more of a suspense thriller with psychological overtones. The PG-13 rating from the MPAA should be enough to alert the viewer that the blood and gore effects are kept to an absolute minimum, a real tip-off to the picture’s quality and content during these days of graphic, visceral R-rated makeup effects.


Rather, the thrills in “Escape Room” come from the level of intensity the narrative achieves from almost the moment it leaves the gate, and manages to sustain almost throughout the remainder of the picture. The participants find them up to their noses in peril before they’re even aware the game has begun. And after managing to escape in the nick of time from one room containing a catastrophic situation, the players are invariably thrust instantly into another. The upside-down pool parlor especially is a real hoot ... until the tiles begin to rain down from the ceiling. Or floor. Whatever. 


In this way, “Escape Room” is probably not the choice a viewer wants to make if seeking a night of rest and relaxation at the movies — the level of concentration required by the game and the participants is enough to similarly keep the audience on its toes as well. In fact, the narrative barely gives the viewer a chance to catch his breath.


The participants in the game are from a wide-enough array of professions to ensure that all audience members will have at least one character to associate with — a college student, a securities trader and a survivor of the Afghanistan War. The problem is that the screenplay allows none of the characters a moment to develop a personality or background, and in doing so generate enough sympathy to care about their outcome. Worse, the picture is almost entirely devoid of humor, which amounts to more or less the same thing. There’s nary an endearing wisecrack from among the game’s players.


In a movie, which requires compassion and a sense of concern from the audience, the characters are little more than playing pieces, or Monopoly board tokens. Nobody’s given an opportunity to remind the audience that “Escape Room” is actually little more than a virtual age variation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery novel “And Then There Were None,” a work already adapted to the screen by Rene Clair in 1945 and by Peter Collinson in 1974, and also the inspiration for two different films entitled “Ten Little Indians,” in 1965 and 1989.


Among the actors appearing in “Escape Room,” Taylor Russell probably fares best as Zoey, a graduate student with an inability to think creatively or anticipate spontaneous developments and situational changes. Challenged by one of her professors to “do something that scares you” during a break from school, the usually shy and socially withdrawn Zoey never realizes that her problem-solving strengths will soon become her ticket to survival.


Logan Miller is also effective as Ben, a recovering alcoholic employed in a dead-end job as a stock-boy. Already barely hanging onto sobriety, constantly longing for a cigarette, Ben finds within himself resources he never before expected ... and possibly even a will to survive the game. With small roles in such prominent pictures as “A Dog’s Purpose” in 2017 and last year’s “Love, Simon,” Miller’s might be the most familiar face among this largely unfamiliar cast.


The other players, which include Deborah Ann Woll as the war veteran, Tyler Labine as a long-distance trucker and former miner, Jay Ellis as a stock trader and Nik Dodani as a game enthusiast and escape room expert — are each likable enough to help generate their share of the abundant suspense in “Escape Room.” But none of them are given enough room by the screenwriters to nurture their characterizations, or to breathe real life into their roles.


Written by newcomer Bragi F. Schut in collaboration with Maria Melnik, also a writer on such Starz premium cable television network projects as “Black Sails” in 2014, “American Gods” in 2017, and “Counterpart” that same year, “Escape Room” was directed by Adam Robitel, a co-writer of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” in 2015 and the director of the horror pictures “The Taking of Deborah Logan” in 2014 and “Insidious: The Last Key” in 2018.


Critically, “Escape Room” is receiving so-so reviews, scoring a 52 percent approval rating from Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 49 percent from Metacritic. Rotten Tomatoes notes that the picture “fails to unlock much of the potential in its premise, but what’s left is still tense and thrilling enough to offer a passing diversion to suspense fans.” Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore assign the picture a grade of B.


Distributor Sony Pictures Releasing was hoping to earn up to $14 million from “Escape Room” during its opening weekend in 2,717 theaters across the United States and Canada. After earning $7.7 million during its opening day alone, including a whopping $2.3 million from sneak previews on Thursday night, projections were adjusted upward. The picture eventually earned $18 million at the box office during its premiere weekend, exceeding expectations and securing a second place finish for the film behind the returning juggernaut “Aquaman,” which managed to earn an additional $30.7 million in its third week of release.


Trailers for “Escape Room” somewhat incongruously featured folk singer Malvina Reynolds’ early 1960s record “Little Boxes,” also the theme song of the long-running Showtime comedy series “Weeds.” In the movie, invitations to participate in the game are delivered in little boxes. Maybe that’s the connection.


As a real-life entertainment activity, escape rooms became popular in the 2010s throughout North America, Europe and East Asia. Based on a genre of video game in which a character needs to exploit his environment to escape imprisonment, real-life escape rooms are set in a wide variety of fictional locations — space stations, prison cells, dungeons — and feature various clues and riddles which when solved enable a player or group to escape their confinement.


On the day of the movie’s opening, five girls were killed in a home-based escape room in Koszalin, Poland. The girls, all aged 15, were attending a birthday party and died of asphyxiation when they were unable to escape after a fire broke out in the building which contained the escape room attraction. The tragedy has resulted in the Polish government shutting down some 13 other escape room locations, citing safety flaws and other violations of public codes regulating entertainment sites.


“Escape Room” is rated PG-13 for terror and perilous action, violence and some suggestive material and language.

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