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Saturday, January 5, 2019

Escape Room



Maybe a dozen years ago, I did an Escape Room with my friends on my birthday. It was Egyptian pyramid-themed and it took us about an hour to beat the game. That experience worked out a lot better for us than Escape Room does for the unwitting victims in director Adam Robitel's tight and well-made film, where six strangers are picked to go into an Escape Room and have their lives taped to find out what happens when Escape Rooms stop acting polite and start getting real. 

Escape Room kicks off a little like The Breakfast Club: a half-dozen random people accept personalized invitations to show up at a Chicago skyscraper on Thanksgiving Day. They are shy physics student Zoey (Netflix's Lost in Space's Taylor Russell), supermarket stock boy Ben (Logan Miller), ex-soldier Amanda (Daredevil's Deborah Ann Woll), affable trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), video game nerd Danny (Nik Dodani), and cocksure stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis). The six appear to have nothing in common - something Jason is keen to point out with smart ass comments to establish his alpha-male status - except the desire to win the promised $10,000 prize (Jason doesn't care about the money; he's attending as a courtesy to his billionaire client). Danny claims to be a veteran of multiple escape rooms and he's eager to provide the necessary exposition to the other players and the audience - no surprise then that he's the first to die when the game turns very real.

The skyscraper owned by Minos Escape Rooms, world-renowned for the finest escape room experiences, turns out to be a labyrinth: the waiting room is actually the first room of the game that transforms into a giant convection oven. The rest of the rooms are as follows: a winter hunting lodge, a frozen lake, an upside-down pool hall (the most visually striking and clever room), a hospital triage center, an Alice in Wonderland-like room of optical illusions, and a well-appointed study where the walls close in to crush you like the trash compactor on the Death Star. Each room feels eerily familiar to each contestant as they gradually realize Minos mined their past to make the death traps distinctly personal. Essentially, they're unwittingly in a Hunger Games scenario where only one is meant to survive and the victims are being watched, not just by Minos, but by Minos' unseen clientele of billionaire backers who finance this twisted form of private entertainment.

The secret of why these particular six people were invited in the first place is revealed: they are all sole survivors of tragic accidents. This, and more, is explained to Ben, the unlikely winner, by the Gamesmaster (Yorick van Wageningen). If the Gamesmaster looks and sounds creepily familiar, it's because he's the same guy who raped and tortured Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Yet despite what a scumbag the Gamesmaster clearly is, he finds out he works for even bigger scumbags. The Minos corporation immediately places him in the game to murder Ben Corleone-style but Zoey suddenly reappears; she's perfectly alive and toting a gun. Zoey realized that the omnipresent cameras were Minos' greatest advantage and by applying the Quantum Zeno effect (physics is useful, kids!) - which basically means atoms being watched can't change - Zoey smashed their cameras and faked her own death. Essentially, Zoey cheated the game and she's as clever as James T. Kirk beating the Kobayashi Maru. Together, Ben and Zoey murder the Gamesmaster and win the game - but no money (womp womp). 

Later, when Zoey brings the police, they find the building is nothing but an empty shell with a graffitti anagram left for Zoey: NO WAY OUT, an anagram for WOOTAN YU, the name they thought belonged the Gamesmaster. Zoey takes this as a personal challenge to take on Minos and she even figures out their corporate logo secretly contains coordinates to their New York City headquarters (now, why would Minos hide their address in their logo??). Six months later, after learning Minos staged 'accidents' to explain the deaths of Mike, Danny, Jason, and Amanda, Zoey and Ben vow to go to NYC and bring down the mysterious Minos corporation - but little do they know they're back in a new game where Minos has their flight information and already plots to turn their airplane into a new Escape Room for them (womp womp).

Escape Room is efficiently staged, sufficiently clever, and showcases fully-gung-ho performances from the cast. The film pulls off a neat trick where, like the characters, we meet a group of people we're not sure we're even gonna like, but thanks to solid writing, the committed performances of the cast, and the extreme nature of their ordeal, we end up rooting for them for them to survive the game. Minos Escape Rooms, however, is as absurd as the Delos Corporation is in Westworld. Apparently Minos is a (possibly ancient) global conglomerate that stages elaborate and expensive death traps to kill people and employs a team of workers whose job is to clean up the evidence and get rid of the corpses as well as research the lives of the next batch of people to kill - this is some business model! No doubt if Zoey and Ben even make it to New York City, they'll find the Minos building is also a giant Escape Room. Why, all the world's an Escape Room, and the men and women are merely players (who never get the money - womp womp).