Randomly stumbling across something enjoyably bizarre while flipping channels is a lost experience in the streaming era. To its dubious credit, the new Lionsgate B-programmer horror-thriller Escape the Field recreates that “What the hell is this?” feeling by dropping viewers into a film without any of the annoying trappings of character establishment or world-building. Watching this movie, the debut feature of writer-director Emerson Moore, feels like picking up a TV series midway through the second season, after all the players and their relationships have already been established.
The premise feels similarly disconnected. Escape the Field combines In The Tall Grass’ setting, Escape Room’s structure, and Squid Game’s creative torture methods into something that’s bizarre, but familiar at the same time. On paper, it sounds like the setup for a video game: Six strangers wake up in a seemingly never-ending cornfield, with no memory of how they got there. Each of them has been given a tool, some of them more useful than others — shades of another probable inspiration, Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 cult classic Battle Royale. Each of those tools is engraved with a symbol, presumably the logo of the malevolent, all-powerful entity that’s holding them there.
In Fukasaku’s film, however, the “players” are given clear instructions for how to proceed in their game. And in Squid Game, the ruling entity’s sadistic intentions do eventually become entirely clear. Not so much here, as overworked doctor Sam (Jordan Claire Robbins) discovers when she wakes up amid the cornstalks, still wearing the scrubs she fell asleep in. Confused, she wanders around and runs into Tyler (Theo Rossi), a nonthreatening dad type also trapped in the maze.
The two make an alliance, which is expanded when they come across four more “players”: Stereotypical military man Ryan (Shane West), kvetching Pentagon contractor Denise (Elena Juatco), anxious computer programmer Cameron (Tahirah Sharif), and alarmingly pale prep-school student Ethan (Julian Feder). (Why Ethan has the complexion of a vampire from Twilight is one of this movie’s many unexplained mysteries.)
Unclear about whether they’re supposed to kill each other, work together, or what, the sextet decides they’re better off as a team. They spend the night wandering through the cornfield, where unseen beasties lurk and ominous sirens go off every once in a while. A couple of them are picked off over the next few days, but it doesn’t really matter. Each of the characters are given stock backgrounds to reference during moments of peril — being impaled on a fence reminds one of the girlfriend they always took for granted, for example. But all of their stories amount to little more than first-date-style “getting to know you” talk. And once a character is out of the narrative, it’s like they never existed at all.
Meanwhile, the remaining cast stays busy with tough-minded bickering á la basic-cable genre shows like The Walking Dead and its spin-offs. (The acting is similarly contrived, which only enhances the SyFy Originalness of it all.) There’s a lot of arguing about who’s in charge and how they’re going to get out of the field, peppered with thuddingly obvious expository dialogue where needed.
Amid the chaos, Sam eventually figures out that the field itself is some sort of puzzle, which we know to be true because of the following exchange: “It’s a puzzle?” “Yes.” But don’t hold out for it to be solved in a conclusive or satisfying manner, as Escape the Field goes on to deepen the mystery before trailing off mid-thought.
Escape the Field gets a marginal pass, for two reasons: First, it’s short, clocking in at a brisk 88 minutes. Second, it’s an original-ish concept, with no explicit ties to existing IP. (Although the ending does betray Moore’s thirst for a sequel.) But while efficiency and originality are both pluses in genre filmmaking, neither of them should come at the expense of creating an immersive world that sparks the imagination, or characters the audience actually cares about. With both of those qualities so woefully underdeveloped, Escape the Field feels not only like a midseason episode, but a premature series finale.
Escape the Field is now in limited theatrical release and available for digital rental or purchase from Amazon and other platforms.