Movie Review: “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions”

The original Escape Room was what I would call a popcorn horror film, meant to get-in, meet a low-expectation, and get-out before anyone notices what happened.

It isn’t the type of film you’ll be thinking about months or even days afterward, and it won’t appear on anyone’s “Best of” List, but it’s a fun, cheesy film that goes down easy, in spite never really making the best of its concept. The premise was simple and straightforward – “a group of people are kidnapped and tasked with escape room challenges with their lives at stake”. Moviegoers eat up these game-esque horror flicks like candy. The Saw franchise is approaching its tenth installment, and, only recently, Squid Games became the most watched program on Netflix. For that reason, it should come as no surprise to learn that the first Escape Room made over 150 million worldwide in ticket sales and who knows what else from home-video and streaming services.

We’ve seen that a lot, looking back.

If you look at The BoyThe Gallows, and many, many others, you’ll find horror films that were ripped apart, but made a substantial return-on-investment. The sheer sum that Escape Room made, however, suggested reason to think a sequel might’ve been able to ride that momentum, built on it, even. The sequels to The Boys and The Gallows were both box-office misfires, as it is much harder to pull off the “get in, get-out” strategy when everyone has a general idea of what to expect. That happens a lot as well, but I honestly thought Escape Room 2 could’ve been different. It isn’t a film series I care about, and yet, neither was Final Destination, but I’ve seen every film, you’ve seen every film, and we’re both likely to watch a sixth film someday.

Those were simpler times though.

Ultimately, when Escape Room 2 was released, it grossed about one-third of the original film, in spite nearly double the budget. Out of context, a moviegoer might chalk this off to the law of diminishing returns for horror sequels, but, obviously, that isn’t the sum of it. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions was released Summer 2021, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even now, unless you’re Spider-Man, most theatrical releases are nosediving in theaters, but, in July? Escape Room found itself boxed in its own little death chamber. I don’t mean to meander and ramble about this, but I find myself really interested in how the studio (Sony) would interpret Escape Room 2’s outcome.

It makes sense to release Escape Room 2. The film doesn’t cost a lot and, with so many of your other films on the fritz, you’re bleeding money. The film makes 50 million worldwide. What do you make of that? Do you believe that everyone is over the concept? Personally, I think making 50 million at a time when Marvel films are making half of what they once did (except Spider-Man) is incredibly impressive. In which case, do you write Escape Room 2 off as a fluke and greenlight a sequel or a casualty of the pandemic? Furthermore, how do studios look at all the films that’ve been sent to die in the pandemic?

Directed once again by Adam Robitel with a screenplay written by way too many people, Escape Room: Tournament of Champion picks up where the last film left off, and, in case you don’t remember where that was, the film is filled with flashbacks to bring you back up to speed. After surviving the “sole survivor” escape rooms, Zoey Davis and Ben Miller have remained close, unable to forget or move on from the trauma inflicted on them by the Minos Corporation. They soon find themselves targeted and forced into a new series of escape rooms, with the occupants all being sole survivors of previous games. Hence the name, “Tournament of Champions”.

Early on, as prefaced, I found myself feeling a disconnect from the characters and their plights, their developments, and their situation. This is because the original film never instilled an emotional investment in Zoey Davis and Ben Miller, the way you may’ve had with Sydney and Dewey in the Scream franchise. I don’t remember them, I don’t particularly care about them. Whether it was intended as such, I can’t help but feel the film’s usage of flashbacks is an admission of guilt, that they understand how forgettable the characters had been.

The Tournament of Champions concept is an interesting idea, or, at least, I think it would’ve been later on, and had they created a stronger series to pull from. For instance, had it been actual ‘Champions’ from prior installments, I think that would’ve been a neat way to pull everyone back into the fold. As it stands, however, the concept is ultimately little more than a way to bring Zoey and Ben back into the Escape Rooms for a second round.

The characters are all mostly likable, which isn’t always a given with these types of films. Often, I feel like filmmakers’ can’t resist the urge to add at least one or more douchebags for you to root against. This is a double-edged sword. Look no further than the Saw franchise and you’ll understand why, but sometimes, rather than making me hate a character, I found that they tended to be over-the-top or to effectively detriment every scene they are a part of. This film doesn’t do that, and that’s something I appreciate. Although characters make boneheaded decisions on occasion, all of them are usually rooted in good intent.

The Escape Rooms themselves leave a lot to be desired. I can’t say I remembered being invested in the setups of the previous film, but I can say that I feel I should feel invested in the setups. Every escape room feels increasingly convoluted and more nonsensical, making it where I, at best, have a vague understanding of what’s happening, and, at worst, am watching a bunch of chickens run around with their heads cut off.

The issue with a lot of these films is that they can have a really neat setting, but struggle to make it mean something on a cinematic level. It can look nice and have attention-to-detail, but unless you can make it engaging and coherent for the audience, it won’t measure up to whatever I had imagined in my head. This film feels like that, where it has a lot of ideas that may’ve seemed cool in-theory, but they aren’t brought together for the film itself. There’re lasers, acid rain, and other ideas, but the solutions and how you survive all feel thrown together, mind-boggling, and ham-fisted.

This is a high-concept film. What I mean when I say that is, for the most part, it is built around the idea of being entrapped in escape rooms more than it is about characters, their backstories, or their motivations. The difference between this and Saw is, beyond the traps, at the core, that film series is about John Kramer and the tangled web he weaved, his motivations, and the backstories of the characters (whether you like those aspects or not). Something I’ve learned through all the different films that’ve taken their spin on the subgenre is that they so often don’t have a compelling explanation for how the sausage is made, so to speak.

This film has an evil corporation called Minos, which is meant to feel mysterious and all powerful, but the more you peel back the curtain on that, you realize the film series doesn’t have anything interesting or new to say about an evil, mysterious, all powerful corporation. That’s why a film like 13 Sins works better, because it doesn’t try to explain the unexplainable, realizing that unless you have a particularly unique idea (like Squid Game), the unknown will be more effective, and you can focus more on the high-concept aspect, be it the games, or, in this case, the escape rooms.

Similar to the original Escape Room, Tournament of Champions feels like a gateway drug into the harder stuff, with little violence and a glossier, more store-bought cinematography and aesthetic. For retreading itself, which in itself, was a retread of familiar tropes of the subgenre, the sequel is inferior to the original film.

All the same, it remains a satiable, forgettable popcorn horror film, warranting no strong reaction one way or the other. See it or don’t. It doesn’t matter. We won’t talk about it again. I rented this film for $0.99 on Vudu, and that’s about what I’d recommend topping out on for this film.

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