A friend of mine once played a drinking game with Christopher Nolan’s 2000 reverse order mystery film. Memento, where he would pause the movie at the start of each scene, and a group of friends who had never seen him would try to guess exactly what would happen next. No one was ever right, but whoever came closest would be spared a drink. Seems like the perfect way to watch 2019 Escape room, an endlessly enjoyable film about people trying to survive a series of deadly escape rooms. The movie is full of puzzles for viewers to guess, and even though they never anticipate the solutions, there are always enough clues to make the guessing fun. So the newly released sequel, Escape Game: Tournament of Champions, seemed like the perfect opportunity for smarter competitors and more devious traps. Instead, the sequel abandons clever mysteries in favor of more straightforward action-horror, losing some of what made the original special in the process.
Champions tournament suit Zoey (Waves‘Taylor Russell, the brightest and most charming actor in the movie) and Ben (Love, Simon‘s Logan Miller), two surviving characters from the original film. The couple travel to New York to confront Minos, the company behind the escape rooms. But they’re soon drawn into another slyly-crafted set of rooms, where they’re joined by other survivors from the previous games for a “Tournament of Champions.”
The rooms in which these characters are trapped are the real stars of this series. In the first film, director Adam Robitel (Insidious: the last key), which has returned for this sequel, makes each piece’s introduction special. The characters are carefully choreographed throughout the rooms, providing a full tour of all the clues and red herrings, so the audience can understand all of the ways the situation changes as each clever and complicated puzzle progresses. Each new shot feels like an invitation to speculate on what might happen next.
In Champions tournament, those great introductions are gone, in favor of more action sequences at the end of each room. To Robitel’s credit, these scenes are really exciting. The action in the original film was often steep and awkward, but the second film is packed with frenetic and unsettling scenes that seem to belong to an action-horror version of Final destination.
But these scenes come at a significant cost. With most of the time in each room devoted to the action, the puzzles themselves often seem flat and underdeveloped. It’s hard to regain the fun of the guessing game from the first movie when you don’t understand the space or don’t have access to the clues. Champions tournament‘the characters explore. Worse yet, the puzzles all have simple solutions, in order to allow more time for these action scenes. And when the characters die because they can’t solve simple puzzles, the horror and tension the movie tries to create immediately evaporates.
The lackluster puzzles do a disservice to the entire premise of the film. These characters are said to be former winners of the twisted game of Minos, but with puzzles as boring as “using a metal detector to find metal on a beach”, it’s hard to make the players who navigate them smart. It’s not even much of a puzzle, it’s just a leisurely hobby under increased pressure.
Champions tournament never even claims to invest in the identity of its characters, beyond giving them first names and perhaps a fact about each character. It is clear that they are only present so that they can die. But engaging with convicted people is part of the process that gives horror movies a certain sense of stakes or thrills. Yes Champions tournament going to lean on the horror, you might as well bend over completely. Watching the death of a character we care about is much more emotionally effective than just ticking off another name on a list.
This odd lack of backstory even manages to derail the best footage in the movie. The stage is an escape room located in a bank lobby with a massive checkerboard floor and a safe door in front of the entrance. It’s a perfect setting for a heist or an escape room, and it’s a bit of both. The characters must run through the squares on the ground, and one misstep will fill the entire room with deadly lasers. To find the way, they have to use safes clues, hidden keys, cards, chess hints and tricky word game puzzles. It’s the only sequence in the movie that mixes action and puzzles, and it’s by far the most entertaining part.
Except that halfway through, Nate the Priest (there’s that name-plus-factoid characterization) decides that he no longer wants to solve the riddle and prefers to trust his faith. So Nate (Thomas Cocquerel) begins to stomp the room with reckless abandon. It’s a weird, unsettling moment that might have been effective, had it been clear why he is ignoring threats and abandoning the premise of the film. Does he surrender? Was blind faith the way he won Minos’ match the first time around? Who knows!
In many ways, Champions tournament Looks like the new Escape Room franchise is coming back to earth. The first film was a tonal, tense and exciting miracle while being silly and serious at the same time. Even when the film clearly borrows its inspiration from the long, ridiculously dense Saw series, it’s not parody, it’s admiration. Escape room is like a loving little brother who can’t help but idolize his exhausted older brother.
Champions tournament never find that same intersection comfortable. It feels more like an imitation of other horror movies than a loving touch to their format. The puzzles in the movie seem more about killing the characters than having them test their skills in exciting ways. Arbitrary, messy death in a horror movie isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but it’s something a hundred other movies have done better, especially since the methods of death here are everything. as boring as the puzzles that provoke them.
While a Escape room drinking game could consist in guessing the solutions to each new trap, Champions tournament invites only the usual horror vigil, with players taking a hit every time a character dies. Both of these games could be fun, in their own way. But at least the first Escape room gives audiences an exciting movie to remember, more than they remember what they were drinking.
Escape Game: Tournament of Champions premieres in theaters on July 16.