In one of the more effectively preposterous death-trap suspense scenes of “Escape Room,” half a dozen terrified strangers, who have signed on to compete in a game of experiential survival, find themselves in an oversize bar that looks like it might, under different circumstances, be a fun place to hang out. It’s a couple of stories tall, with a pool table, a sprawling bar, and an oversize jukebox. Except that the entire room is turned upside down. As Petula Clark’s “Downtown” plays with wavery slurred speed on the jukebox, pieces of the floor begin to drop away, revealing what looks like an elevator shaft to hell. One of the people ends up dangling over the abyss from a thinly stretched phone cord, at which point you may stop breathing for a second. But only for a second.
Can our heroes figure out the clue — it’s got something to do with a lost billiard ball — that will let them exit the room and move on to the next trip-wired chamber of horror? “Escape Room,” directed by Adam Robitel (“Insidious: The Last Key”), is one of those movies, like “Game Night” or any of the “Saw” films, in which the world we’re watching is entirely rigged. The genre was probably invented 40 years ago, when Ira Levin wrote “Deathtrap” (or maybe eight years before that, when Anthony Shaffer wrote “Sleuth”), but it got kicked into the age of head-trip technology with David Fincher’s “The Game” (1997), in which the ever-shifting reality that surrounded the Michael Douglas character reflected the prospect of life being hijacked by the morph-happy consciousness of video games. The “Saw” series added its own layer of booby-trapped grunge torture: Jigsaw, the harlequin puppet, may have been a vengeful sadist, but he was really the serial killer as God, devising Rube Goldberg contraptions of death to toy with you.
“Escape Room,” which is like “Saw” remade as a PG-13 group date, jettisons the torture but keeps the death. It’s a game of survival of the fittest in which the planners of the game are several steps ahead of the characters, and the film works hard to stay steps ahead of the audience, but only by basically making itself up as it goes along.
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The contestants, who have to escape a linked series of rooms, have signed on to win a possible prize of $10,000. They think their job is to look for keys, hidden compartments, and cryptic word clues, and it is. But they don’t realize that the stakes of the game are real —i.e., their lives are truly on the line — until they gather in the first chamber, which looks like an elegant waiting room, only to discover that it’s a giant oven that’s about to bake them. From there, they stumble through a vent and out into a picturesque wintry wilderness, where it’s only a matter of time before the vast stretch of ice before them starts to crack and give way.
The characterizations in a movie like this one tend to take a back seat to the churnings of the plot, and in “Escape Room” that’s even more true than usual; that’s what makes it a January movie (though this one could carve out a week or two of modest business). Everyone on screen is playing a Johnny (or Jane) One-Note: Logan Miller as the mouthy slacker millennial, Deborah Ann Woll as the scarred Iraq War veteran, Tyler Labine as the trucker with a proletarian chip on his shoulder, Jay Ellis as the heartless dandy of a financial player, and Taylor Russell as the wallflower who’s like the virtuous quiet girl in a slasher firm. Nik Dodani, in giant glasses, plays the one character who’s game for all the games — a junior veteran gamer who, no matter how treacherous things get, thinks it’s all just for fun. I wish the film had done more with him.
Even when these movies are good, they’re pure carny contraptions. But next to the unevenly diverting trap-door convolutions of “Escape Room,” something like “Deathtrap” begins to look like Chekhov. The first part of the film gets some airy momentum going. Then, however, we learn the secret of what the characters have in common, and it gives you that slightly sinking feeling of one contrivance too many. Who gives a damn if they live or die? Certainly not the movie, and so, following suit, not the audience, either.