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ROOM WITH A SKEW
Escape Room: Tournament of Champions (15)
Director: Adam Robitel
Screenplay: Will Honley, Maria Melnik, Daniel Tuch
Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll
Review: RJ Bland
Adam Robitel's Escape Room was one of the horror success stories of 2019. It tapped into the rising popularity of immersive puzzle experiences (most commonly known as Escape Rooms, funnily enough) and infused some Saw style depravity and shocks along the way. High concept horror such as the aforementioned franchise and the Final Destination series have proven to be extremely popular amongst not just die-hard horror fans, but general audiences too. Escape Room fortified the trend - made for less than $10m, it went on to take over $150m worldwide so it's no surprise that a sequel was promptly confirmed. However back in 2019 things were a bit different. Is the idea of watching a group of people locked in a room for 90 minutes going to hold the same appeal in the midst of a global pandemic where most of us have had to isolate for weeks at a time?
Set a few weeks (or months) since the events of the first movie and Minos are still at large. Survivors Zoey and Ben have been unable to move on with their lives and still relive the trauma of their ordeal. The police found no evidence and are not willing to believe their story, which doesn't exactly help them either. So they decide to head to New York to locate and confront the shadowy Minos Corporation. When they get there, it feels like a dead end. The building is boarded up and there is no sign of anything untoward. But after a vagrant steals Zoe's necklace, they give chase and wind up in a subway train. However the pair soon realise that there's something a little off about this particular carriage. And when it detaches from the main rest of the train and is redirected to an empty station they begin to understand that this has been a trap They're back in the game. A fear that is confirmed when they learn that the other four passengers stuck there with them are all winners of previous Minos Escape Rooms. Let the games begin!
Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, no one can accuse ER: TOC of being boring. It crams an awful lot of action into it's efficient running time. However, whilst it's arguably more frenetic and nasty than its predecessor, the doubling down on the Escape Room concept comes at the expense of the characters that are trying to survive and it generally makes for more a more disposable and less satisfying viewing experience. Somewhere amongst all of the puzzles and games, the focus on Ben and Zoey gets a little smothered and although the supporting cast are all solid enough, their characters aren't fully rounded enough for us to care much about them. They feel a bit too much like fodder, waiting to be disposed of. Also, there is a risk that watching people solve riddles and puzzles doesn't necessarily make for particularly thrilling viewing. What the first film managed to do a bit more successfully was to make the audience feel as if they were partaking in the puzzles themselves, albeit from the safety of their cinema seat. ER: TOC doesn't allow us the time to engage in this way, however. There is a lot more shouting and panicking here (presumably to make it all feel a bit more tense) but the result is that we feel more detached. We're spectators, not players. Perhaps it's an effort on Robitel's part to reinforce the idea that we are actually voyeurs in all of this. We've actually got more in common with the Minos Corporation than anyone else as we're lapping all of this carnage up. I'm not convinced that's what the Director had in mind though.
Saying all of that, in terms of set pieces, the film doesn't disappoint. There's a lot of joy to be had when we are introduced to a new 'room' and that period of speculation before the rules are established. The sense of uncanny and something sinister lurking beneath the veneer of normality is ripe and Robitel once again proves that it's something of a winning formula. The production design is slick and the incessant score and fast editing mean that although it may feel a little exhausting at times, it's never boring. It is guilty of spoon feeding us at times and it doesn't invite you to engage your brain in any significant way but if you are happy to sit back and let the film do the heavy lifting (which can admittedly be quite a lot of fun) then you'll get more out out of this for sure.
The final act tests the limits of plausibility, mind you. Although it's a wise move to keep us in the dark as much as possible about Minos, their alleged capability and resources seem completely preposterous by the closing scenes. Of course, you have to be willing to look the other way at times but there is a risk that if they push the envelope too far, it could end up becoming farcical. There are no supernatural elements to any of this so it still has to be grounded in some vague sense of reality. Or maybe that's just us taking it all a little bit too seriously...
Regardless, even though ER: TOC feels like a bit of a step down from the first film, it further validates the idea that this is a franchise with legs and there will be more films to come, for sure. With the Chris Rock's re-imagining of Saw feeling anything but fresh, there is an opening for another white-knuckle, high concept, popcorn horror series and Escape Room may be just that.
Although it's not as satisfying as the first film, Escape Room: Tournament of Champions still offers enough thrills to warrant a watch. Its relative success also paves the way for a full-on franchise.
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