Are you looking to get your head in the game before an escape room? These puzzle movies are a great way to do just that. We’re not talking about “puzzle movies” in the sense that they leave the viewer feeling puzzled. Rather, we’re talking about movies that have some sort of puzzle-like elements to them, or movies with mystery and excitement that leave you going “Wow!” when the story comes together. Featuring mysteries, riddles, traps, and adventure, these five puzzle movies will leave you itching to have an adventure of your own.
This article contains spoilers
National Treasure (2004)
National Treasure is a fun adventure that follows the story of Benjamin “Ben” Gates on his search for the lost treasure of the Knights Templar. Clues found on his search lead him to believe that a map is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence. When Ian Howe, a member of his expedition, suggests stealing the document, Ben rejects the idea. Their fight turns into a race between their respective teams to find the document—and the treasure—before the other can. Though this movie may not be the most obvious choice when thinking of escape rooms, there are plenty of puzzles in it that make it an excellent fit.
The movie opens with Ben and other members of his expedition looking for a lost ship in the arctic. The ship is the Charlotte, mentioned by Ben’s grandfather years ago. Ben finds the next clue in an old gunpowder barrel: an old pipe containing a note with a riddle. It’s this riddle that points their expedition to the Declaration of Independence and starts the race between Ian and Ben. Both teams plan their heists for the same night, but Ben manages to take the document in the end. With the (initially unwilling) assistance of Dr. Abigail Chase and Ben’s father, they find a cipher on the back written in invisible ink.
Decoding the cipher leads Ben’s team to Independence Hall. There, following the bell tower’s shadow at the right time, they find a hollow brick containing special glasses. The glasses reveal more clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence. Ian’s team arrives and Ben splits up from his teammates, but is arrested by the FBI. While talking to the FBI agent, they receive a phone call from Ian. He has Ben’s teammates and father, and he wants the glasses. In order to save his companions, Ben is forced to work with Ian on the final stretch of their quest.
Clues on the back of the Declaration of Independence lead everyone to an old church, where they find an underground passage hidden in a grave. The passage leads down a long tunnel to a seemingly empty cavern. Ian believes he was misled and demands the next clue. Ben and his father give him a false clue and Ian leaves after locking them in the cavern. Ben finds a switch on the cavern wall that opens a door to an empty room. The team is disappointed, thinking the treasure was already gone, but they still need to escape.
As they search for an exit, Ben finds a small carving on the wall that resembles the pipe from the Charlotte. After inserting the pipe into the slots, they open the door to the true treasure room. They escape the cavern and reveal their findings to the FBI, who then arrest Ian and his team as they try to break into another building. The team arranges to donate the treasure and walk away with a substantial reward for discovering the greatest treasure in history.
The arrangement of riddles and clues in this movie tie together remarkably well, with the Declaration of Independence at the center. Each riddle solved gets Ben closer to the treasure and the key items all have a purpose. Using the pipe as both the first and final key brings the movie full-circle. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place for some of these elements to appear in an actual escape room. If you want a puzzle movie to get you in an escape room mood, this is definitely one to see.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
The Da Vinci Code is a movie about conspiracies and mystery. It tells the story of Robert Langdon’s attempt to uncover the truth behind the murder of Jacques Saunière, one of the Louvre’s main curators, for which he is the primary suspect. His search for answers, aided by Sophie Neveu, leads him to a secret society known as the Priory of Sion and a quest to find the Holy Grail.
While in Paris to give a lecture, Langdon is asked by the police to decipher a message that Saunière left in blood when he was murdered. The cryptic message includes a pentagram, a scrambled Fibonacci sequence, and a set of anagrams. He meets Sophie Neveu, a cryptologist with the Paris police and Saunière’s granddaughter. She tells Langdon that he is the police’s primary suspect, but she believes that her grandfather was trying to give her a message. She helps Langdon evade the police so that they can solve the mystery.
Their first step is to solve the anagrams, which lead them to Leonardo Da Vinci’s art at the museum. There, they find a key that has a bank address engraved on it. At the bank, they use the Fibonacci sequence to find a safety deposit box that contains a cryptex, a cylinder containing a secret message. Since breaking the cryptex would destroy its contents, the pair have to find the correct code to open it. They leave the bank to escape the police and go to find Langdon’s friend, Leigh Teabing.
Teabing tells the pair his theories about the Holy Grail. He believes that the Grail is a person, Mary Magdalene, who he claims was Jesus Christ’s wife. His theory is that the Priory of Sion and the Knights Templar were trying to protect the descendants of Christ. The real killer breaks into Teabing’s house to steal the cryptex, so the group escapes. Langdon finds a clue on the cryptex’s box. They open the cryptex and find another one inside, along with a clue that leads them to London and the tomb of Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.
After arriving at Westminster Abbey, Teabing reveals himself to be behind the real killer’s actions. He’s been trying to find Mary Magedeline’s remains and threatens to kill Neveu if Langdon doesn’t open the cryptex. Langdon breaks the cryptex, seemingly destroying its contents, and Teabing is arrested. The real killer dies in a gunfight with police. Langdon reveals that he had already found the code and the final clue had not been destroyed at all.
Langdon deciphers the last clue and takes Neveu to a secret church, where she meets her long-lost brother and learns that they are Christ’s descendants. The church vows to protect her. Langdon also uncovers a second meaning to the final clue and returns to the Louvre, where he believes the Holy Grail was buried.
This puzzle movie is great for someone looking for a story with drama and intrigue. Between the murder, secrets, and final betrayal, there’s plenty of entertainment in addition to the riddles and codes that need to be solved. In addition, this movie and the book it’s based on are the origins of the cryptex. Since it came into popularity, the curious puzzle box has been used in a number of escape rooms — including our very own Fright Before Your Eyes.
Memento isn’t a movie about puzzles or games. Rather, the movie is the puzzle. It tells the story of Leonard Shelby’s revenge in two parts, one in color and the other in black and white. The two parts of the story alternate between scenes to weave the story together. This fragmented presentation earns this movie a place on this list of puzzle movies.
The movie begins with Leonard Shelby taking a picture of a man that he just killed. In the next scene, he wakes up in an unfamiliar motel and narrates his thoughts while piecing together his surroundings. He gets a phone call from an unknown person and tells them about his wife, who was killed by two men during a home invasion. Leonard killed one of them but was struck by another, which resulted in him developing anterograde amnesia. He has been unable to form new memories since the incident. Despite this, he has been looking for the second attacker ever since.
As the movie alternates scenes, the timeline of the story is gradually revealed. He collects evidence and leaves himself notes in the form of photos and tattoos. He gets help from Natalie and Teddy, two people who take advantage of his amnesia for their own purposes. Between those scenes, he tells the caller about another amnesiac, Sammy Jankis, whose story he learned from. The caller offers to give him evidence about the second attacker and arranges to meet with him later.
Scenes in this movie are stitched together out of order, so the story only comes together at the very end. The answers are revealed but it still isn’t entirely clear how much that was said is truth or lies. Leonard says, “Memory can change the shape of a room, it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted.” In this story, where his memory is inherently unreliable, how do you know what’s real? Finding the answer will require looking at things from different perspectives. It’s a valuable skill in life as well as in escape rooms.
Escape Room (2019)
We’ve written about Escape Room before, when we reviewed the rooms featured in the movie, but you can’t talk about puzzle movies without mentioning this one! Much like Fright Before Your Eyes, we see this movie as a thriller rather than scary, despite the dark premise. Six people are given a puzzle cube: Zoey, Ben, Jason, Amanda, Mike, and Danny. When opened, the cube presents them with invitations to a unique escape room challenge held by Minos. If they succeed, they are promised a $10,000 prize. When the participants arrive at the venue, there is no one to greet them. They are given no instructions on what to do or when the game will begin.
When Ben tries to leave, only to have the door handle break off, the others realize that the game has begun. They attempt to work their way through six deadly puzzle rooms. The players gradually realize the common theme connecting them together: each of them was the sole survivor of a tragic event. As they progress, players die one by one until only Ben is left.
Once Ben completes the final puzzle, he meets the game master and learns that the game was all entertainment for a mysterious audience. Every year, a different theme was chosen for the players and the audience placed bets on who would survive. The game master attempts to kill Ben, but Zoey intervenes. She had faked her death in order to escape. The two players kill the game master and leave. Zoey later returns with the police, only to find that all traces of the deadly game are gone. Despite this, she believes that the game isn’t over. Once Ben recovers, she plans to find the truth behind Minos.
It may seem ominous to watch a movie about deadly escape rooms right before playing your own game, but have no fear. Danger like that is strictly reserved for fiction. In fact, this movie can be quite fun for fans of escape rooms that want some extra tension and excitement, or just to see the concept on the big screen. There are some interesting puzzles in this movie, too. Some of the ideas would be quite fun to incorporate into an actual game.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a classic adventure movie, filled with action and humor. While it may not be your first idea when thinking of puzzle movies, this colorful treasure-hunting story sets up a fantastic finale with clever challenges.
Indiana Jones receives a package from his father, Henry Jones, containing his father’s diary. The book is a record of his father’s research on the Holy Grail, which can supposedly grant eternal life. Indiana learns that his father disappeared while searching for the Holy Grail, as part of an expedition headed by Walter Donovan after he found a broken tablet containing a clue to the Grail’s whereabouts.
When Indiana finds his room ransacked, he takes the diary and heads out with his friend, Marcus Brody, to find his father. The two arrive in Venice and go with Dr. Elsa Schneider, Donovan’s assistant, to the library where his father was last seen. Dr. Schneider gives Indiana a note that his father left that contained only roman numerals. He uses the note to find catacombs beneath the library’s floor. He and Dr. Schneider venture into the catacombs, which are partially flooded with petroleum-infused water. There, they find a tomb containing the remains of a knight whose shield bears an inscription that matches the tablet. The inscription points them to the location of a temple that hides the Holy Grail.
Before Indiana and Dr. Schneider can leave the tomb, someone sets the petroleum on fire. They escape and fend off a secret group that seek to protect the Grail. Indiana tells their leader that he only wants to find his father. The man directs Indiana to a Nazi-occupied castle where his father is held. Indiana and Dr. Schneider leave to find his father while Marcus takes the map from the diary to look for the temple. He manages to find Henry, but the two are caught when Dr. Schneider double-crosses them with Donovan. The diary is stolen and Indiana escapes with his father. Henry insists on getting it back because it contains important clues for solving the temple’s challenges.
Indiana and Henry head to Berlin to reclaim the diary, then try to rescue Marcus, who has been caught by the Nazis and Donovan. They catch up to the Nazi caravan while it’s headed to the Holy Grail’s temple. With help from the group that guards the Grail, they rescue Marcus and arrive at the temple. Donovan and the rest of his men are already there, though none have made it past the first trap. Donovan tells Indiana to solve the challenges for him. When Indiana refuses, Donovan shoots Henry and says that finding the Holy Grail is the only way to save him.
With the clues from the diary, Indiana manages to make it through the three challenges. The first challenge requires him to avoid and disable hidden saw blades. The second challenge consists of stone floor tiles that crumble if he steps on the wrong one. To solve this puzzle, he has to spell out the name of God. The final challenge is to cross an invisible bridge, which takes him into a chamber where an ancient knight lives, which is filled with many beautiful grails.
The knight is one of the first people to find the Holy Grail. He tells Indiana and Donovan that the correct grail will give them eternal life, but the wrong one will kill them. Donovan chooses the wrong grail and dies. Indiana finds the correct grail and uses it to heal his father. When Dr. Schneider tries to take it from the temple, the temple begins to fall apart. She and the Grail are lost as Indiana escapes with Henry and Marcus.
This movie, and indeed the entire series, is first and foremost about adventure. However, some of the most iconic scenes are the ones that show our intrepid adventurer escaping a trap or solving a puzzle. In fact, the second challenge of the Holy Grail’s temple served as inspiration for one of the puzzles in A Knight to Escape. Even though puzzles aren’t the primary focus, this is a great movie to watch to get into an adventuring mood.