At first glance one runs the risk of dismissing Cube as the cheap love child of The Outer Limits and Saw.
A group of people awaken to find themselves trapped in an impossible mechanical maze filled with traps and mind screwing ‘living’ architecture. They are forced to work together in what has to be the most pressure-cooker environment since Spy vs. Spy. Which, inevitably, leads to mental and physical clashes, and a “humans are the real monsters” sentiment.
Cube is not what everyone would immediately classify as ‘horror,’ because the closest it has to a villain is Kafkaesque bureaucratic red tape. Oh, there are certainly other threats. Cube was a Saw film before Saw films were even a thing. The opening scene depicts a man’s face being sliced into bloody giblets by a razor wire trap. Another scene sees a survivor being sprayed in the face by acid, melting it away into a hollow mess. Cube has this Picasso style obsession with disfiguring faces. I’m hoping he’ll grow out of it.
But Cube is much more than a handbook on creative ways in which to slaughter people. It’s as existential as cinema gets. The characters devote much of the screen time debating the purpose of the structure, where it came from, and who created it. But these questions are just as empty as the void that surrounds the Cube. We learn nothing of its true nature nor its creators. As a matter of fact not one single second of footage takes place in the outside world. Cube exists in a cocoon, with our worldview informed only by the interactions between its prisoners.
And the characters can hardly be described as healthy people. Maurice Dean Wint has a rather excellent turn as increasingly unhinged cop turned prisoner Quentin. He even has a dodgy moustache which all but screams ‘I am evil’. Surprisingly David Hewlett plays a good guy, considering his later more well-known role as the asshat on that TV show Trekwars: Atlantis III: The Wrath of the Cylons.
As I was re-watching the movie for the purpose of this review, I noticed that the character of Worth (Hewlett) is the one who undergoes the most substantial development and provides the audience with the most significant insight into the world. Throughout the movie he rants about the state of life: “I have nothing… to live for out there…I wasn’t exactly bursting with joie de vivre before I got here; life just sucks in general.” However, as the plot progresses, Worth jolts out of his misanthropic pessimistic outlook and becomes one of the more central and selfless characters.
So it occurred to me that the entire movie could be interpreted as Worth’s delusional fantasy. It’s the multiple layers of intrigue that make Cube’s plot so fascinating. Well, that is until the prequel and sequel came along to explain all that intrigue away.
Cube was the début effort of Vincenzo Natali – who went on to direct Splice and has long been touted to helm that promised adaptation of William Gibson‘s Neuromancer – and was made on shoestring budget. Legend has it, for example, that the special effects were handled for free by a local company. The two sequels had significantly healthier budgets than Cube, and that certainly shows in the different philosophical approaches between the later films and the original.
Natali understood the vital principle of less is more. Cube’s set design consists of unsettling geometric patterns and has a strange steampunk feel. The minimalist approach contributes to the desolate atmosphere by highlighting the cold, industriousness of this structure dedicated to death. Whereas Cube 2: Hypercube is a lot more elaborate and busier, feeling comparatively overdone.
What sets Cube apart from other films of its ilk is the unconventional resolution to its central problem. Advanced mathematics plays a crucial role in Cube: to navigate a safe passage through the Cube the characters calculating equations to determine the Cartesian coordinates of the structure, and prime factorisations to solve the mystery of the numbers embedded into each door. It’s a thinking man’s approach to horror, even if it does buckle under its internal logic.
Even the story’s ultimate hero is unconventional. Kazan (Andrew Miller) is a realistically portrayed autistic man capable of performing advanced calculations in his mind; an ability which actually informs the plot. This film would surely be impossible to market in modern Hollywood:
Director: “Hey I have an intriguing idea for a new film”.
Producer: “Sounds good! Do tell. But make sure I can hear you over this cocaine party.”
Director: “Well it’s about these flawed people who are placed in a mysterious prison that’s never explained for reasons that are never explained.”
Producer: “Boring! But Pierre has this tastelessly expensive idea for a CGI monster that we could shoehorn in.”
Director: “No, no, no, there’s not a monster.”
Producer: “Oh. Wait. How about we create another new slasher icon to milk the hell out of? The Cube-Boy. I like money.”
Director: “No, they’re alone except for the traps and the creeping sense of existentialism.”
Producer: “…But where are we going to clumsily insert the action sequences?”
Director: “There’s not much action. Not really. But they do use maths and logic to beat the prison.”
Producer: “…independent thought alert! Independent thought alert! Kill! Kill! KILL!”