It had been sixteen long months since I last saw a movie projected in a proper cinema. Early in the pandemic, I went out for a nice restaurant meal and a screening of The Invisible Man on a Friday night, fully aware that it would be my last taste of either indulgence for a good long while. Over a year later, I pulled up to AMC Elmwood listening to the mayor on the radio strongly “advising” indoor mask wearing again due to the rapid local spread of the Delta Variant (one week before that advisory snowballed into a mandate). So maybe this long-delayed return trip would also be my last taste of moviegoing for a long while; maybe it would be the only chance I had to see a movie at the megaplex in all of 2021. I made it count by watching some vapid trash.
The first Escape Room was a surprise delight: the rare example of an early-January gimmick thriller that actually lives up to its preposterous premise: “What if escape rooms, but for real?” That premise was also smartly designed to support as many sequels as audiences could care to see. There are some vague motions towards toppling the impossibly widespread conspiracy network that set up the film’s lethal escape room death traps, but for the most part the series is so far all about the rooms themselves. Escape Room 2: Tournament of Champions isn’t as surprising nor as tense as its predecessor, but its death traps are plentiful and plenty preposterous, including an electrified subway car, a city-block acid bath, and an “art deco bank of death.” There’s nowhere for the series to go in terms of worldbuilding or metaphorical purpose, so all it can really do is continue to escalate the size & cruelty of its death traps until the entire planet and life itself are all one giant escape room. I sincerely hope we see enough sequels for it to get there; these are great braindead popcorn flicks.
Foolishly, I borrowed the first Escape Room from the library the week before watching its sequel in theaters, thinking I’d need a refresher on the lore & surviving characters before diving into a new chapter. After 25min of AMC’s trailers and commercials, Tournament of Champions included a recap highlight of the first film – effectively a “Previously on . . .” TV show recap of everything I needed to know, making that rewatch redundant. I did appreciate a few things about watching both Escape Rooms as a double feature, though, even if was unnecessary. As a pair, they were a much-needed balm after being repeatedly burned by the inferior Cube series in recent weeks, which has a similar knack for preposterous traps but only a small fraction of the follow-through. They also best the Saw films in that regard, mostly in their aversion to torturous cruelty – solemnly acknowledging the lives lost without reveling in the grisly details of their demise. As much as I’d like to praise these films as survivors’ guilt thrillers with a critical eye towards audiences’ bloodlust, though, the truth is their death contraptions are just entertainingly absurd.
Watching the original Escape Room at home, then watching Tournament of Champions at my old AMC Elmwood haunt only reinforced the things I miss about the theatrical environment. I’m convinced the first Escape Room is the better film, but I had a lot more fun watching the sequel big & loud with a (sparsely populated but sparsely masked) crowd. I was once again fully, properly immersed in a feature film, by which I mean I couldn’t check my phone every half-second my attention lagged. I’d love to make that experience a regular routine again, even if for the inanest bullshit movies imaginable. Sixteen months is a long, long wait for that simple of an indulgence, but I also don’t know how I often I want to sit for hours in a dark room with the general public right now, all things considered.