The first wide release of a calendar year is traditionally an undemanding popcorn palate cleanser to soothe (or numb?) the mind after the ambitions–or, more accurately, pretensions–of the year-end flurry of would-be and wannabe awards bait, and 2019 is no exception, with Sony Pictures kicking the year off with the thriller <i>Escape Room</i>. The no-frills title reflects the straightforward premise: a group of six disparate strangers are recruited into a deadly escape room game under circumstances that prove to be as deadly as they are mysterious. There are no real surprises here on the script level credited to Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik. On the page, the scenario progresses at a basic programmatic level: as the group moves from potential deathtrap to the next, the ranks are thinned out one by one, as are revealed little key biographical details about each participant, gradually building to unifying design, rather than chance randomness, behind the madness.
Director Adam Robitel, however, appears both keenly aware of the built-in limitations and all-in committed to them, recognizing how studio escapism (bad pun intended) can be by-the-numbers yet still be fun for both himself and the audience. The Rube Goldberg-esque, one-thing-leads-to-another progression of each room does have its puzzle-box style and suspense that effectively puts the viewer vicariously in the characters’ shoes as they negotiate through them; that each room has its own distinctive flavor adds to the fun. The characterizations, such as they are, aren’t fleshed out on the page beyond stock types, but given the nature of the piece, they don’t have to be too much more than be individually recognizable. Yet to Robitel’s credit, he has assembled a talented and charismatic ensemble, led by Taylor Russell, Jay Ellis, and Deborah Ann Woll, that give more than they’re given and whose commitment make it easier to buy into the preposterous scenario.
And does it ever get preposterous, and in a less fun, more labored, and wholly predictable way, in the final stretch, where the obvious eagerness to set up a continuing series is perhaps the film’s biggest cliché. But getting there is undeniably the enjoyable ride one expects from such a film, however ultimately disposable it may be.