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Review: Psychological thriller ‘Escape Room’ provides break from post-holiday gloom

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A scene from the movie “Escape Room.”

The amped-up psychological thriller “Escape Room” pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it fairly well. If that sounds like faint praise it’s not — exactly.

It’s just that for all its nervy creativity and fast-paced tension, this deadly twist on the escape room phenomenon — an immersive game in which players must solve riddles and clues to escape a locked room — can’t help but feel a bit empty and contrived, especially when it’s all explained away in the end.

Still, it’s a mostly fun, logic-be-damned ride if you just stay in the moment and don’t think too deeply as the going gets tough — which is soon enough.

The inventive script by Bragi Schut (“Season of the Witch”) and Maria Melnik (story by Schut) brings together six strangers who were mysteriously invited, via a small puzzle box, to experience a Chicago escape room. The “winner” — which, it will turn out, means the survivor — receives $10,000.

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These participants — think an older, less engaging “Breakfast Club” of types — include Jason (Jay Ellis), a slick, hard-charging finance exec; Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), a prickly Army vet with PTSD; Mike (Tyler Labine), a genial, West Virginia trucker; Danny (Nik Dodani from TV’s “Murphy Brown” reboot), a bespectacled geek and escape room expert; Ben (Logan Miller), an attitudinal slacker; and Zoey (Taylor Russell), perhaps the contestant we most care about, a painfully shy college brainiac with hidden mettle.

Mind’s-eye flashes hint at each of their traumatic pasts that will become more integral parts of the film’s puzzle — and these desperate folks’ crucibles — as we go.

They will all bring their strengths, such as they are, to unlock the answers needed to flee a series of booby-trapped rooms, each elaborately constructed with their own thematic brand of life-and-death trickery: a generic reception area that turns into a massive oven, a freezing faux forest with a treacherous ice floor, an upside-down pool hall with a hellish elevator shaft (see “Mary Poppins Returns” for a more enjoyable topsy-turvy sequence), a spooky triage unit that holds more than a few plot-unraveling secrets, and a Victorian library that collapses in on itself — and its unfortunate visitor.

These outrageous sets — benign one moment, terrifying the next — are definitely the picture’s calling card (Edward Thomas’ production design and the art direction by Mark Walker are highly impressive) and become their own memorable characters, especially given the ample time we spend in most of these spots.

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However, the rooms’ wildly self-destructive natures make you wonder why the hosting Maze Corporation goes to so much effort and expense only to seemingly have to start from scratch after each trial. But that’s just one of several big questions that hang there until they’re answered — or not — later on. (Let’s start with the company’s insurance policies!)

The film, handily directed by Adam Robitel (“Insidious: The Last Key”), contains its share of cliff-hanging, race-the-clock action bits that test the players’ wits, guts, integrity and loyalty as the story evokes elements of the “Saw” and “Final Destination” franchises as well as a high-tech version of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” (minus four, that is) and the old board game-turned-comedy film, “Clue.”

Unfortunately, the narrative gets increasingly muddled and far-fetched (though, in truth, not much more than in most gimmicky thrillers) as we discover what brought our ill-fated characters together and why. Although a method to all the madness is needed, the sequel-friendly rationale concocted here — and the evil “Games Master” (Yorick van Wageningen) at its core — gives way to a less inspired culmination and coda than the often clever, propulsive activity that precedes it.

There’s also something inherently anti-climactic about leaving the gripping confines of the hermetical maze of game rooms and returning to the real world (or this fantasy film’s version of it) to tie things up.

Thankfully, the film doesn’t overdo the snarky humor and forced hipness, much less the kind of clunky exposition we’ve come to expect from the genre. In addition, the script’s stabs at social commentary and survival-of-the-fittest themes work well enough within the nightmarish mayhem.

When it comes to movies, you could do worse to escape your post-holiday blues than this one.

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‘Escape Room’

Rated: PG-13, for terror/perilous action, violence, some suggestive material and language

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Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Jan. 4 in general release

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