The Saw franchise was revived in 2017 with Jigsaw, the eighth film in the world’s most enduring torture porn franchise and the first since 2010. As it followed its predecessors in being a financial success, a ninth film is reportedly in the works, but until it makes its way to cinemas, Escape Room fills that niche pretty effectively.
Like the Saw movies, Escape Room finds its motley group of strangers trapped in a deadly puzzle box, and like the Saw movies, these strangers share some common trait that has earned them their place in this cutthroat social experiment. Unafraid to invite the comparison, Escape Room even features a poster in which star Taylor Russell’s face is plastered with puzzle pieces.
What has presumably drawn audiences back to the Saw franchise is not more of the same, though they do get that, but the new ways screenwriters can imagine tearing victims limb from limb. Escape Room is decidedly lighter on the gore, but it does offer something kind of new in expanding on Saw’s core logic of what sacrifices to self and others the game participants are willing to make. Only this time, it’s in the form of ever more complicated and imaginative game spaces, negotiated by players who have to be junior Robert Langdons to save their own lives. This makes it just interesting enough to be worth watching, though probably not worth prioritising over a haircut or other productive use of your day.
These participants are willing, at least in theory. Each of the six strangers has received a black cube in the post, and if they show the drive to figure out how to open it, a piece of paper pops out inviting them to compete for a $10,000 prize. All they have to do is figure out how to beat the escape room designed by one of the world’s most prestigious organisations devoted to that real-world pursuit, in which real young adults participate with some gusto. These real-world escape rooms are actually meant to simulate the experience of a movie like Saw, only without the threat of having to cut off your own foot with a rusty implement.
Anyone who’s seen any horror movie will know that most of these characters will not make it out, but the pleasure in Escape Room, such as it is, is seeing the spaces they’re trying to get out of. They go from hot to cold when a duct leading from the oven room takes them to what looks like a frozen pond with falling snow. How did the game makers create such an environment inside a tall office building? Well, they’ve got a lot of money, and besides, don’t ask that question.
A couple of these spaces are clever in a way that gleefully defies credibility and bursts outside the confines of the warehouse environments in Saw. Realism is not this film’s strong suit, though at least these traps are not the sole work of a serial killer who’s been dead for six movies. Anyone who’s been in an actual escape room knows that the obscurity of the puzzles and clues tends to thicken the brain of even a reasonably intelligent person, so good thing the characters find themselves on the same wavelengths as the game makers more often than not.
Adam Robitel’s film is a prime example of the way Hollywood can purport to present something new just by subjecting something old to some very minor tweaking. Although Escape Room does the business of setting up its own possible sequels, it shouldn’t really warrant any based on quality alone. Then again, Saw was no critical favourite, but it churned out one sequel per year for the next six years after its release. Who’s to say what’s deserved, especially when you must grudgingly admit that Escape Room is kind of enjoyable.