Directed by Adam Robitel
No Spoilers ahead beyond what has already been shown in the trailers
‘They’re watching us. They know every move that we’re making.’
I’m going to start this review with a little bit of context about myself. For over a year now I have been a ‘Games Master/Events Supervisor/Room Runner/That bloke who just gave us the brief’ at a relatively popular Escape Room company in central England. My role is to monitor the players via CCTV, give clues when necessary, and to reset the room before the next group arrives, as well as some general maintenance and repairs. So, when I saw the trailer for Escape Room, a 2019 film where six strangers are locked in a room forced to solve a number of cryptic puzzles for their survival (Not to be confused with Escape Room, a 2017 film where six friends are locked in a room forced to solve a number of cryptic puzzles for their survival; or Escape Room, the other 2017 film where four friends are locked in a room forced to solve a number of cryptic puzzles for their survival), my curiosity was piqued.
Just how well would the idea of an escape room be represented? Would they bother to fabricate actual solvable puzzles, or would their focus be primarily on gore and spectacle? To delve into this, I put myself into the mindset of a hypothetical player of these rooms, to see how well the fictional rooms of Minos Escape Rooms would hold up as an experience…
I’ve done a handful of escape rooms, not enough to call myself an expert but I’m always up for one if the offer’s there. So, when I got an invitation from Minos Escape Rooms (Loving the reference by the way) to play their new escape room for FREE, with the potential to win a further $10,000 I was well up for the challenge!
I’ll start with some positives. First off, the production value is top notch. There’s some really nice room designs there, beyond even the ones I played in Amsterdam (and I thought they’d be insurmountable). I don’t want to spoil too much in case other people want to play it, but I’d happily pay the extra $15 for this, maybe even more. There’s one room that’s an upside-down bar, another where you feel like you’re actually outside in a forest, just top-quality sets, and a good number of them as well. I feel bad for whoever has to reset it all afterwards as they have a hell of a job to do.
At first, I was a little bit confused by what the general theme of the rooms were. There didn’t seem to be anything linking them together, cool as they were, they just seemed to be disparate ideas and concepts lumped together. It was about halfway through when one of the other players pointed out that each of the rooms were based on specific harrowing experiences from our pasts that it all came together. We did a horror escape room in Nottingham for Kevin’s stag do once where we gave them pictures of Kevin as a kid to hide in the room before we played, you know to freak him out a bit. This was a bit like that, except instead of pictures of us it was entire rooms dedicated to recreating traumatic near-death experiences that we needed years of regular counselling sessions to cope with. I admire the attention to detail and all the little hidden secrets and references around the rooms, but I’d have preferred a theme maybe a bit less distressing like ‘Bank Heist’ or ‘Egypt’.
That being said, it’s often the case that an escape room will have a 'ticking bomb’ sort of gimmick, you know, 'you have an hour before the tomb collapses', or ‘you have an hour before the missile fires’, but in the end all that happens is the games master comes in and says you’ve lost. It was nice to see that this time we were actually in a massive oven, it really added to the suspense of the situation.
Unfortunately, it was in this first room, the oven room, that the puzzles didn’t flow all too well. As far as I could tell, some of the puzzles we solved didn’t help us progress at all and only made the room hotter. This isn’t good game design, as it felt like we were being punished for solving things instead of being rewarded. On reflection, I can see a way we could have made it out of that room without turning on the oven whatsoever. It was only by chance that we solved one of the ‘bad’ puzzles first.
Aside from that, the puzzles were surprisingly decent and well thought out (well, for the most part at least). They were rational and well researched, and not too divergent from other puzzles I’ve come across, at least in concept. One outlier of a puzzle involved a lamp falling into the perfect position to light up a particular clue on the wall. It was a bit far-fetched that they’d rig a lamp to fall so spot-on but it sort of matched the clue we were given a second before so we went with it. As well as that, I’m pretty sure some of them we didn’t solve in the intended way; often our solutions at times seemed a bit bizarre and left field. For example, if you do play it, you’ll come across a key in a big block of ice at one point. There was no indication as to how we were supposed to get the key out, so we just put our hands on it and waited for it to melt which wasted a lot of game time. Maybe we were just dumb, I dunno lol! It was one of a good few bonding moments though, so I’ll let it pass.
Speaking of which, it was interesting to play with a group of strangers. I normally play with mates as I find most strangers to be absolute arseholes, but these guys were surprisingly likeable. They didn’t have too much depth of course but were certainly a lot more interesting and relatable than most strangers are. There was only one guy who was an absolute arse and another who was an occasional arse but a 1:5 arsehole ratio is pretty decent in my view. To tell the truth, I normally don’t care if people die in these sorts of situations, but I found myself murmuring in dismay fairly frequently as my teammates perished one by one. It’s a shame, we were able to work quite well together at points.
So yeah, I probably should address the elephant in the room at this point: A number of my teammates did die in quite horrible ways when playing this escape room. I get it, it’s a newly built room, you can’t build precautions for every single scenario, maybe we were just an unlucky group, but it unfortunately really did hamper our experience.
I’ve never seen the Saw films, but I have read all the synopsis on Wikipedia when I was feeling particularly morbid late one night, so I know those films aren’t for me. And I get the comparison that could be made between the Saw films and our own experience of this escape room, but they aren’t as similar as you’d think. Happily, despite the number of horrifying deaths that occurred, I saw minimal gore. My teammates deaths were tense and sometimes surprising without being needlessly vulgar or tasteless, which for my sake I am thankful for.
Overall, despite the unfortunate setbacks, I quite enjoyed my experience at Minos Escape Rooms. There was of course the red herring near the end, but it was satisfying and fun enough that I could overlook its predictability. That being said, there are better rooms to play at the moment. Lego’s new Escape room comes to mind; as well as the futuristic anime looking one with the big eyes; and I haven’t played it yet, but Dream-locks new Dragon themed room is apparently a must. But if you’ve exhausted all those and are looking for a thrill then Minos’ Escape Room wouldn’t be a bad shout. Once they’ve sorted out their kinks, I’d maybe see what more they offer down the line (though hopefully not too much more; I could easily see sequels going down-hill.) But yeah, quite fun in the end.
I give this film a 5/7 for being a fun, tense and thankfully not overtly crass horror romp
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Spoiler ahead, not explicitly stated but very heavily implied
‘What is magic? Magic is deception, but deception designed to delight, to entertain and inspire. It is about belief, faith and trust. Without those qualities, magic as an art from would no longer exist.’
This is the message the enigmatic four horsemen preach to a cheering and adoring audience near the climax of the film. It is one of the many messages in this film that confuses me.
To me, there is almost always the shared between the magician and the audience that the trick is just that, a trick. The thrill comes not from seeing a miracle but from seeing an illusion, and, despite your best attempts to see through the hidden contraptions or ignore the misdirection you find yourself duped and outwitted, once again falling to that oh so familiar question: ‘How did they do it?’. In this respect, if you, like I, enjoy magic in this way, then your enjoyment is based upon cynicism, scepticism and doubt, the complete antonyms of belief, faith and trust that the film preaches. Indeed, from the film’s perspective, if you approach magic and illusionism with this sceptical mind-set then you are as much a magic-philistine as the grouchy FBI agent who is the protagonist of this film. As far as this story is concerned, the question ‘how did they do it?’ is something you shouldn’t concern yourself with, and this riles me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. For those who haven’t seen it, this film revolves around the exploits of four bank robbing magicians and the authorities who attempt to bring them down. These magicians each represent individual genres of magic: we have Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenburg) who represents street magic and card tricks, Merrit McKinney (Woody Harrelson) who is the token mentalist and hypnotist, Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) who is skilled with sleight of hand and lock-picking and finally Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) who supplies the age-old staple of magic that is computer-generated imagery.
Now, you may be thinking ‘Calvin my dear lad, computer generated imagery isn’t a staple of magic, surely you must mean escapology?’ Well, I’ll have you know that CGI has been one of the central pillars of magic since Ancient Egyptian times. As well as the ‘cup and ball trick’, one common illusion of the time was the ‘floating goat’. The magician’s assistant would bring the goat to the front of the stage where the audience could all get a good look at it. Once it was agreed that this was your standard conventional goat the magician would reveal their intention to cause it to levitate. The magician would murmur a few superficial spells to create an atmosphere and the crowd would subside into a hush of silent expectation. Then, when the silence was held for just the right length of time, two men dressed in lime-green morph-suits would sneak soundlessly on to the stage and raise the goat into the air. This trick reliably astounded audiences for almost five millennia, confusing scientists and scholars alike. It is only in recent years, where CGI has a greater presence in the public consciousness, where the effectiveness of the trick has diminished. (And if you think I’m lying, then you are clearly forgetting the core principles of magic. Remember, magic ‘is about belief, faith and trust’.)
The film starts of hopeful. We are given a quick introduction to each of the four going about their magic business as they are each slipped a mysterious calling card. They follow the address on the card and arrive together at an abandoned warehouse, and, after a bit of that nostalgic CGI magic for the history buffs, holographic blueprints appear in the air to which our four horsemen say things like ‘wow’ and ‘they’re incredible’ (One of my favourite movie tropes by the way. I’d need at least half an hour and a couple sheets of A4 to doodle on to make head or tail of blueprints like that). We then cut to abstract amount of time later and the four horsemen are now well established and are about to perform their live Las Vegas shows ultimate trick: to rob a bank. We are no longer in the magician’s perspective, we see the trick as the audience would see it. A member of the audience is selected at random. They bring him to the centre of the stage and give him a helmet camera to put on. In a flash, he disappears, and we see through the camera feed that he is now inside his own bank in France in front of several large stacks of money. He is told to write his name on his ticket and place it in the centre of the room. The money gets sucked up through vent in ceiling and seemingly travels all the way to their theatre in a matter of seconds where it falls like confetti onto the delighted audience. In the next scene we are introduced to our protagonists Detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol Agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) and it is revealed that the Crédit Républicain in Paris was indeed robbed and seeing as it was real euros that rained down on the audience of that Las Vegas show the four horsemen are arrested as suspects of the robbery.
With the proverbial cards laid out I lean forward in my chair and speculate on this intriguing centrepiece the film has given me. I start to pin the strings and photographs to the cork-board of my mind. Was the first-person footage actually live? Was the audience member a plant? Are the euros that were dropped in the show the same euros stolen from the bank in Paris? Was that bank even robbed, or have the FBI been fed false information?
As it turned out, I needn’t have bothered trying to figure it out; Morgan Freeman explains it all in the next scene. Thank you, Morgan Freeman. Thanks.
I’ve never wanted Morgan Freeman to shut up before and I felt bad for even thinking it. Freeman plays professional magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley, a documentary presenter who has quite laughably ended the careers of numerous ‘two-bit hustler’ magicians by revealing their magic tricks to be nothing but illusions and special effects. I love the concept that in this world calling out a magician as a charlatan can end their career. I wonder if in the Now You See Me universe the popularity of Thunderbirds went downhill when everyone realised they were puppets, or whether Walking with Dinosaurs ratings sank when the tabloids revealed that all the dinosaurs were animated. This magic debunker is equivalent to that bit-character in Family Guy who decrees Peter a ‘big fat phony’ when he sets a keyboard in a shop to auto-play.
Now, what should have happened when the expert Bradley was called in was that he had his theory of how they did it, they wandered the empty stage and talked it through, and then found out he had it wrong. That would have been a great hook to keep the plot thread going. Instead, as with many of the other set-ups in this film, this trick is explained before I got chance to try and figure ‘how they did it’. (Admittedly, there is part of a trick later on that gives you enough info to work it out before-hand, but I was so desensitised by all the CGI tricks throughout the picture that I had concluded they’d long since given up on lending their illusions a rational framework by then.) From this point, the plot becomes a cat and mouse chase with the four horsemen seemingly always a step ahead of the two investigators while Morgan Freeman sits smugly, knowing everything going on. And then the movie ends, and I get mugged.
‘What if all this was just leading up to us being mugged in central park at 2am’ jokes the token mentalist McKinney, which it turns out was misdirection, as it was in fact me who was soon to be mugged by the final plot twist. The best plot twists in films are the ones that fundamentally change the way you see the film the second time you watch it. These are the Fight Club’s and Sixth Sense’s, the films that you can pick out all the little plot crumbs that you missed the second time through, the films that you can’t help see differently, the films that could potentially give you just enough clues to work out the reveal ahead of time. Now You See Me is not one of those films. I have seen this picture twice and the knowledge of the twist made the plot actually make less sense the second time round. There is a reason Poirot was never revealed to be the murderer: because it would rend the whole story and all his investigation work meaningless. This is another example of the film rebuking cynical thought. If you don’t ask questions, you may enjoy it. Indeed, as already established, magic is about belief, faith and trust; you’re not meant to ask ‘how?’.
But what about the rest of the film? There were some good visual parts, unfortunately they were mostly surrounding those magic tricks that were clearly not grounded in any real-world illusions, though the few tricks that clearly were real were fun. I could talk about the actor’s performances. All members of the cast were identifiably behaving in a fashion that defined themselves as personalities separate from their individual selves. In other words, they were professional actors performing their trade. Good job. I enjoyed how the four horsemen entered the stage like they were judges from X Factor. What else… There was a cameraman who was very good at walking in circles. The director must have noticed his skills as numerous shots whirl around the focal point of the scene at that slightly too fast rate that made you want to call to your mum when your older cousin recklessly spun the roundabout again and you just wanted to get off. Also, the music was alright. I won’t be getting the soundtrack any time soon, but it served its purpose well enough. And I think that just about covers it. So, onwards now, to the conclusion.
I am the sort of person that takes apart clicky-pens. I like to feel the mechanism, to peer through the convex plastic casing and watch the parts move back and forth, to sculpt a model of the pen in my mind and picture how it may work. This film is telling me ‘Stop that Calvin’ it says, ‘You’ll brake the pen if you do that,’ to which I say ‘So what if I do? You made this pen for me to enjoy, I’ll enjoy it how I wish.’ But to my dismay it is not a clicky-pen at all, what Now You See me gave me was a smelly gel-pen in a clicky-pen casing. The button at the end is a dud, and when I take it apart all I get is glittery wet fingers.
I give this film a 2/7 for promising me a stimulating mystery but horribly messing up the answers
Directed by James Wan
Minor Spoilers Ahead... Arguably Major Spoilers (Depends How Much You Care)
‘Okay, what did he just say?’ the Atlantean princess Mera asks Arthur Curry after a water-ghost recording of an ancient King dumps a hefty load of exposition on us. ‘Something, something, trident’ replies Arthur, which is exactly three more words than I had taken in.
There are a many number of words in this film, which is not unusual for a film, of course, but about a third of the way through the two hour and twenty-two-minute run-time I found myself unable perceive any of them. That’s not to say the story was complicated, the plot was fairly standard. To break it down to a sentence, Arthur’s half-brother, Orm, a King of Atlantis wants to wage war on the surface world for all the pollution and warships we’ve dunked into the sea, so, to stop him destroying the people that raised him, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman, must retrieve the Trident of Atlan (a sword in the stone stand-in) to prove himself the rightful heir to the throne so he can usurp Orm before his plans come to fruition. Truthfully, I found myself being unable to listen to the exposition mostly because there were far more interesting things to focus on: namely, everything else in the film.
Firstly, the visuals on display are intense and astounding. This is the film you advertise 4K televisions with. The colours pop, the action is clear, the designs are diverse and wonderfully crafted. This is easily the most visually attractive film DC has made so far. Remember the colour scheme of Atlantis in Justice League? No? Imagine the colours that accumulate between the grooves of your walking boots after trudging through a slag heap on a rainy day. The Atlantis shown in Aquaman is nothing like that. The Atlantis in Justice League, as it turns out, is how our feeble mortal eyes would see it, whereas to Atlantean eyes their world is lit up like a paintball tournament at Cyberdog. They have manta-ray shaped space-ships that have blue glowing rippling fins and tails, shiny red lobster soldiers that leak luminous purple goo when their arms are chopped off, herculean battle crabs that emanate a fiery orange from within their machinelike frame. Mera, for just a couple of shots, adorns an elaborate collar made to resemble translucent bubble-gum-blue jellyfish, bobbing and pulsating almost as if they were alive (and as it turns out, when she takes this robe off and the jellyfish drift off on their merry way, that is indeed the case). And everything shoots plasma laser things, of every colour, and they all make the satisfying noise of a rubber band being fired into a tub of UV soap. There is simply too much to indulge yourself in that you have to try to ignore it to give any attention to the plot. I wasn’t paying attention to what exposition orange-beard was filling us in on, I was trying to look at his kick-ass sea stallion.
The range of diverse costumes and set pieces on display is startling, and I’m not sure if that’s in a good or bad way. I couldn’t help imagining the discussion table when they were figuring out their art direction. ‘So for the Atlanteans, we can either have them as high tech, white plastic neon warriors, or, we could bring out more of the classic Aquaman colours, the greens and golds and go for a more medieval armour look with some crustacean influences, or, we could have them merman-like with green skin and pearlescent clothing, or, we could go more down to earth nomadic and have them wear parts of dead sea creatures as if it were like Celtic leather armour’ to which James Wan leans towards the art director and says ‘Remove the word ‘or’ from all that, and yes!’ It honestly feels like no idea was turned down. Should we have Ocean Master or Black Manta as the villain? Yes. Should we have them ride sea horses or sharks? Yes. Do you want to use the angry version of this helmet or the super angry version? Yes. (Seriously, in the climactic battle, baddie King Orm wears a solid glossy metal helmet that has no movement whatsoever except from a pair of deep lustrous smooth eyebrows that inexplicably change from peeved to bloody livid during a couple of key lines of dialogue.)
I should note that these disparate designs do serve to separate all the factions and tribes that reside within Atlantis. And maybe this is how they’re presented in the comics, I wouldn’t really know, however, I ended up having no real idea of any ideal or character that defines the core of what Atlanteans are. For comparison, within the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films there were various tribes of dwarves, elves and orcs each bringing their own unique designs influences and identity, however, I could always tell what was Dwarvish or what was Elvish and so on. I have no idea what Atlantean design is beyond something to do with fish. Anything could be Atlantean, but what is Dwarvish is very defined. Of Atlantean culture, all I can make out is beautiful chaos.
The film seems to be aware that its visual elements are more engaging than its plot as numerous conversations are interrupted by things blowing up. I counted at least five scenes of expositional dialogue that ended with the principle cast being flung offscreen by sudden luminous explosions, and that was only after I noticed the trend. I could almost imagine James Wan sitting there with his detonator in his hand and his troupe of apple-brand sub-aquatic power rangers waiting off stage, ready to storm the set. Not even the actors know when it’s going to happen, he could press the button at any moment. One minute they’re discussing Sicilian architecture the next the camera is craning upwards to an aerial wide-shot, they’re surrounded by neon red battle men (collect them all), and half the wall is gone.
These fight sequences and set-pieces, for the most part, are damn fun to watch. You’re always given space to take in the action, there are no unnecessary harsh cuts or shaky-cam, and the choreography is neat and inventive. Thankfully, Aquaman’s fighting style is a lot more distinct that it was before. In Justice League he came across as a heavy hitter and nothing much else. Here? Well, ever played a game where you’ve levelled up your character fully, got all the skills and the best armour and weapons available, unlocked all the equipment and maxed out every stat? Ever then gone back to the easy section of the game where all the weak beginner enemies are, just to goof around? That’s how Aquaman fights. He has no real need to worry about his own well-being, he’s practically immortal, so he can have fun with it. Bullets don’t harm him but he’s going to try and block them anyway, just to see if he can. He’ll carry a goon on his back for a while, let’s knock him out by walking through a low doorway. Can you KO an enemy by opening a hatch into them? Yes, it appears you can. Similarly, when the higher-level enemies start randomly spawning, he gets suitably miffed.
It was when I started comparing the rest of the feature to a video game where I figured out why this film wasn’t completely gelling with me, why I was finding myself getting bored despite the outlandish visuals. You see, what I generally remember of the games I play are the best ‘bits’. When I think back about Aquaman, well, there’s the bit in the submarine with the shiny black armoured pirates, there’s the bit where there’s the gladiator battle in the massive stadium with the top-trump stats, there’s the bit where they slide down the sand to the underground ruins like it’s a log flume, there’s the bit on the tug boat with the Lovecraftian fish-men who are afraid of light, there’s the bit with the spiny krakken who needs a lozenge, there’s the bit with the dinosaurs in the background... and so on. All I can remember is a sequence of admittedly remarkable set-pieces with minimal development in plot or character. These are levels in a game, not scenes that affect the structure of a narrative.
Watching Aquaman, for me, was like completing a really good video game all in one sitting. Yes, there are some quality sets, costumes and sequences, but experiencing it all in one go doesn’t give you enough time to reflect on and fully appreciate it. I’d rather have delved into the world of Atlantis a chunk at a time, always wondering what new things would be around the corner while still taking the opportunity to enjoy what was there at that moment. It was all too much in a short space of time. Never mind the plot, the plot barely matters in many games outside of key points, I wanted to experience that world. The film’s final act reinforces its game like quality. ‘What’s the plan again?’ asks Arthur as the vibrant chaos of war wages on in the background. ‘Survive’ replies Mera (we wouldn’t want to have to start the level over). It doesn’t help that the climactic battle is set on the mostly empty roof of a circular water-space-ship floating in the middle of the sea as thunder and lightning ravage the sky-box. This fight, more than any conflict in any film I’ve ever seen, screams ‘final boss’.
I could talk about how the plot resolves too easily. Arthur doesn’t so much prove himself being worthy of king, more he proves his lineage, and oddly the people just seem accept it. He doesn’t seem to be any kinglier at the end than where he began, outside of a spanglier trident and his signature fish-scale armour. It’s established that the Atlanteans bear no love for the titular half-breed Arthur so their leap to devotion to him after he beats up their king was jarring. That being said, I was decreasingly able to focus on the dialogue throughout the film so maybe it was explained, and I just missed it. Either way, I didn’t really care, I was too busy looking at all the pretty colours.
If Aquaman was a linear hack and slash game like God of War or Bayonetta, Aquaman would be superb. It’d be a game people look back fondly for years to come, heralded as a classic for its art and character and unique levels and design. Instead it’s a two-and-a-half-hour trailer of an awesome looking game I’ll never have the joy of playing. Go see it if you want something pretty to look at (especially if you have a thing for Jason Momoa), it’ll look its best when its on the big screen (as will he).
I give this film a 4/7 for being a pretty, albeit over-saturated, neon glitter action fest