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The ending of Escape Room explained

It's the start of a new year, and Columbia Pictures is celebrating by taking audiences to the Escape Room. One part Cube, one part The Game, with a generous sprinkling of inspiration from the Saw series, the PG-13 thriller is surprising viewers nationwide with its macabre twist on the popular puzzle attraction. But the experience isn't all about burns, big falls, and bone crunching — there's a story in there too.

The movie is putting in a respectable performance at the box office, making back double the costs of its budget in the first weekend of its release — encouraging news, considering all the work the film puts in to set up for a sequel. The search for the most immersive interactive gameplay experience is over, but the fight for survival has only just begun. In case you missed a few key details, here are all the clues you need to puzzle out the ending to Escape Room

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In Minos' maze

The premise of Escape Room revolves around a group of grown-up strangers who all receive mysterious, unsolicited invites to a competitive escape game, purportedly the most immersive experience of its kind. After solving a complex puzzle box, the players are lured to the location, somewhere in Chicago, with the promise of a $10,000 prize for the game's winner — not a bad way to kill an afternoon, even for the characters less inclined toward solving puzzles. 

The game is apparently being put on by a company called Minos Escape Rooms, with an impossible, Escher-esque shape making up its sleek logo. While not necessarily a warning sign, the branding indicates to players that this game means business. The name "Minos" refers to the first King of Crete, a Greek mythological figure who presided over a labyrinth to which young men and women would be brought for his entertainment. Maze-like and practically unescapable, the unwitting participants would typically be killed inside the labyrinth by a monstrous Minotaur.

While the escape room of the movie isn't particularly labyrinthine, the idea of people being lured there simply to die for the entertainment of others proves especially relevant by the time the movie's ending rolls around, and the company's secrets start being revealed.

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Expensive hobbies

Escape Room introduces us to its cast of characters through snapshots of their separate lives. Zoey is a bookish, socially awkward puzzle solver, Ben is a melancholy drunkard, and Jason is a comfortably wealthy white collar worker with ego to spare. On the same day, each character is the recipient of a mysterious black box that serves no obvious purpose, except as perhaps an elaborate paperweight.

Jason receives his box while at his office, supposedly gifted to him by a particularly wealthy client. When Jason opens up the gift, he is amused by the seeming uselessness of the item, and makes a casual remark to a coworker about the weird hobbies and interests of the mega-rich. 

Jason makes the remark before he discovers that the box is actually his RSVP to the escape room, but as the ending of the movie reveals, his comment was pretty on the mark. The rich do have weird hobbies in this universe — deathly weird ones.

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The lucky few

After the escape game reveals its deadly nature with a room that's a gigantic oven, a room mocked up like a frozen lake, and an upside-down room over a massive pit, the surviving players finally get to discover some tantalizing hints as to what the purpose of the game is.

Following their costly escape from the bottomless void, Mike, Ben, Zoey, and Jason enter a room that's mocked up to resemble a hospital — several hospitals, actually, with each character finding something familiar in the room to be drawn to. They quickly realize that the room has been set up to remind them of a traumatic experience from their past in which they emerged as the lone survivor. Zoey survived a plane crash, Jason survived a boating accident, Mike survived a mining accident, and Ben survived a fatal drunk driving collision. As Zoey describes it, they are all statistical anomalies.

They later discover that this aspect of the game is for more than just psychological torment. As the game master reveals in the final chamber, this game was set up specifically to pit lone survivors against each other, for the sake of seeing what would happen when these lucky few compete. 

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Brute force

Upon discovering that the escape room is less of a game and more of a social experiment, something inside Zoey snaps. While all of the other players set about attempting to solve the room's puzzle — a physical test which involves getting a player's heart rate below a certain threshold — Zoey goes berserk and starts smashing every camera in the room. 

Zoey justifies her action by relating it to a feature of quantum mechanics called the quantum Zeno effect, which she conveniently was learning about in college just the day before. After considering their experiences in the last several rooms, she guesses that the people in charge of the game aren't just passively observing their play, but actively involving themselves in it — something that would be impossible if she destroyed the cameras they're using.

As poisonous gas begins to fill the chamber, the surviving players make their escape, leaving Zoey behind as she insists on finishing the job. When the gas fills the room, she survives by breathing through an oxygen mask, knowing no one can see she's still alive in there. When the Minos staff comes to clear out the room, they presume her dead — and she attacks. 

The late Danny, who met his end beneath the frozen lake, previously insisted that brute force would never be necessary to win the game. It was a fine principle to hold to before people started dying; in this particular instance, we have to imagine he would respect the technique.

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New game

With Zoey practicing her game-breaking gambit, Jason and Ben continue to press on to the game's end, with Ben managing to defeat the sociopathic Jason when they're forced to come to blows. Ben survives the final room to meet a man who describes himself as the game master. 

In the manner of a monologuing super-villain, the GM proceeds to tell Ben — their surprise winner, and "dark horse" bet — all the details of Minos' menacing scheme. The theme of this game, the GM reveals, was only one iteration in an untold series of murderous matchups. Ben's group, the lone survivors, was preceded by groups comprised of other categories, such as college athletes or savants. 

Justifying the motivations behind the game, the GM alludes to mankind's history of bloodsport, comparing the players to gladiators. This contest, he reveals, is for the benefit of no one but the viewing audience. As he puts it, "We created a sport for people who still have a thirst for savagery." But the game is hardly sporting — after unspooling all these sordid details, the GM then reveals that Ben simply doesn't get to win, and attempts to strangle him to death before Zoey makes her reappearance and intervenes. Together, they kill the game master — and then they run for their lives.

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Liquidated assets

Ben and Zoey escape from the Minos building, with Ben struggling with injuries he sustained during the final puzzle room. Offscreen, one day passes, with Ben being admitted into a hospital. Sitting at his bedside, she's informed that Ben is stable, and then called away with some police officers to insist in their investigation. Uh-oh.

When Zoey returns to the Minos building with the police officers, she is faced with a devastating discovery. While the police don't seem to be in cahoots with Minos, the company itself is nowhere to be found. The massive facility has been completely cleared out, showing only the scarcest traces of the elaborate nightmare engine that had been installed there just 24 hours before. 

In a final insult, Zoey is taunted by an anagram on the wall, relevant only to her eyes, that reads "Wootang Yu" — a mysterious name that previously appeared in several rooms of the game. As the police officers regard her skeptically, she finally realizes that the nonsense name is itself a puzzle, one that solves to "no way out." It may as well have said "No refunds."

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A winner is you

After a hard-fought journey, Zoey and Ben move on with their lives, probably burned by the knowledge that they went through all that trouble and didn't even get to split $10,000 at the end. The movie catches up with them in Chicago, meeting up to chat six months after their escape room experience. 

While life is going well for Ben, Zoey finds it impossible to let go of the ordeal — especially since the company behind their trauma has continued to go completely unpunished. The bodies of their fellow players, she discovers, were scattered around the world in the effort to make their deaths look like accidents. The whole scheme sits poorly with Zoey's sense of justice — the world deserves to know that they were murdered, and the murderers need to be held accountable.

Appealing to Ben's morality, the two decide to follow one final clue, hidden in the company's logo, which seems to point to the nondescript headquarters of the Minos company in Manhattan. They make plans to fly to the city to confront the company, and hopefully gain closure. It's an understandable idea… but maybe not the safest one.

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Now boarding

After Zoey mentions the plane tickets she's purchased for herself and Ben, the movie abruptly cuts to a madcap epilogue, taking place on what appears to be an airplane. As passengers scream in fear for their lives, flight attendants work frantically to locate key items, cobble together gizmos, and solve riddles, presumably in an attempt to get access to the cockpit and keep the plane from crashing. Again, we're led to believe that they're accomplishing all this while standing in an airplane that is falling out of the sky

The situation is over the top and completely absurd, involving characters we've never seen before, and seems like a strange note to end the movie on. The players reach the cockpit, but not in time. The plane heads toward a mountain… and then the simulation ends. 

Turns out, the plane sequence is an experimental dry run, put on by the Minos company, for an escape room the company plans to install inside the plane that Zoey and Ben are going to take, with a mysterious overseer explaining that our heroes' travel plans have been intercepted. They will have, it is projected, around a 4% chance of surviving this game, which seems to be targeting them out of pure spite. On a monitor, a shadowy silhouette snarls that it's time to play again. Jigsaw would be proud.

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Accomplices?

The final moments of Escape Room are a clear tease for a wide-ranging sequel, demonstrating the truly awesome reach of Minos. It's the only time in the movie that viewers get a real glimpse behind the curtain, and the operation looks massive. Dozens of people are involved with the plane escape simulation alone, leading one to wonder just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

One question that goes unanswered throughout the movie is how specifically each player was chosen — we know why, but what brought them to the company's attention? Zoey receives her invite, supposedly, from a college professor. Is that really the case? Was her professor at the movie's start truly in on the Minos scheme, and callously setting her up to die? Or did the organization fake the provenance of every gift box? 

Either way, you have to wonder — is the sequel going to reveal some kind of John Wick secret society, and have it turn out that everyone in the city of Chicago is secretly a game master? Oh… we sure hope so. That's just the kind of off-the-rails insanity this movie needs to take things to the next level. If a sequel gets greenlighted, you can count us in the game.