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Escape Room owes everything to Saw, but it’s still slick

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It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does roll it well

escape room star Taylor Russell David Bloomer/Sony Pictures

If you think you know what Escape Room is about just based on the title, you ... are right. Directed by Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key), the movie stars six strangers who are invited to play an elite escape room. Each has their own reason for joining — but, of course, it’s not just a game.

The concept has been thoroughly explored in movies like Cube (1997) and the Saw franchise. Escape Room doesn’t add much to the subgenre, but it is an exceptionally tense and well-crafted entry. Each room is clear in its concept and stakes, with well-conceived puzzles that leave very little room for “why don’t they just ... ?”-style complaints.

The escape rooms all have their own stylish designs, and the cinematography makes great and inventive use of the set-pieces. One room is set up like a pool hall, with a fully stocked bar and mid-game billiards table — only, it’s upside down. No opportunity is wasted in rotating the camera between upright and topsy-turvy, to confuse the eye and throw the audience off balance. The choreography adds layers of visual fascination to already interesting scenes.

The movie doesn’t rely only on the puzzles to keep things interesting. The cast is also energetic and charming, playing characters who form relationships and actually react to the situations they’re placed in. The standouts are Tyler Labine (Deadbeat) as good-spirited Mike and Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil) as the scarred veteran Amanda. Even though the characters are broadly painted, it’s easy to root for them, which makes the puzzles — and their violent payoffs — actually matter.

The writing is not without cliches. Investment banker Jason (Jay Ellis) mocks escape room fan Danny (Nik Dodani) for being a sexless, game-loving loser, which is a weird choice for a movie about games. The transformation of Zoey (Taylor Russell) from shy brainiac to badass isn’t entirely convincing, but it is satisfying to see play out.

escape room upside down room scene David Bloomer/Sony Pictures

The only stumble in pacing is at the end: The arc of the story ends long before the movie does, with the last 15 minutes spent setting up the next entry in a likely long-running franchise. Rarely have I seen a movie take such an aggressive bite of the franchise apple, even in a genre infamous for monsters resurrecting at the last moment to stumble into a sequel.

Echoing Jigsaw’s “let’s play a game” mantra, the movie knows it’s executing a formula, but it also knows how to make that formula work. Escape Room might have a long, successful series ahead — if it can keep the characters engaging and the puzzles flawless.