Cube (1997)

Shot in twenty days and on a micro-budget of just $365,000 (Canadian), using only a single set measuring 14′x14′ and a cast of unknowns, Cube is one of those films that it’s a joy to come across, because if nothing else it attests to the fact that a film which has an interesting idea and a solid script at its heart does not need a billion dollar budget nor a brace of well-known stars for it to shine, which it absolutely does.

Five complete strangers awaken to find themselves inside a cube-shaped room, with no recollection of how they got there or why they might be there. The room is bare except for the glowing coloured wall tiles and six hatches – one at the centre of each wall, one in the ceiling and one in the floor. Each hatch leads off into an almost identical room, seemingly ad infinitum, a maze which would be hard enough to navigate in and of itself but is complicated further by their discovery that only one of the six offshoots from every room will give them safe passage to the next, five out of the six are boobytrapped with a range of highly sophisticated mechanisms designed to kill anyone who enters unawares, in a variety of cruel and unusual ways (as the attention-grabbing opening sequence capably demonstrates in gloriously grisly fashion). No food, no water, no clue as to why they might be there or even if there’s a way out, they’re going to have to band together and rely on their grouped wits and skills to survive and solve the puzzle (if there is one) of the cube.

To go into specifics would be to spoil it, as it’s one of those films that benefits from the viewer being along for the journey and discovering the unfolding plot and its twists at the same pace as the characters. For it’s these characters and their interactions that are at the core of the film’s success – watching them as a reflection of society in microcosm for all of their different attributes and personalities, watching how far each will go in a bid for survival under extreme duress poses interesting philosophical and moral questions along the way. Stick together, or every man for himself? Is survival enough, or does being human mean more, something lost if we sacrifice our principles merely to continue existing? It’s to the cast’s credit that they each do their respective parts justice and pull this off nicely (occasionally I felt that the actors who played Holloway and Quentin erred on the hammy side, but not so much that it bothered me and they’re still a cut above the general standard of low-budget horror/sci-fi flicks). If the cast hadn’t been as able then the film would definitely have fallen flat and the viewer would lose interest at the half way mark. Gladly this isn’t so as you’re with them all the way to the final reel, breathless as the sense of danger, of events spiralling out of control and the overall claustrophobia of their situation keeps the tension cranked high. Claustrophobia only partly describes it, as it’s not merely a sense of being trapped within an enclosed space, it’s something greater that gnaws away, something hard to describe but comes from the awareness of being trapped inside something seemingly inescapable, that desperate, manic desire inside us all to live and to find any way out even when we’re staring death right in the face.

Another wise decision of writer/director Vincenzo Natali‘s script is that nothing is over-explained, there are some things left ambiguous which makes it all the more mystifying and terrifying for the characters, who all posit their theories on their situation, ranging from military testing and extraterrestrials, to some form of Big Brother style sadistic gameshow. No clue is given, the people who have done this and their motives remain elusive and it’s all the better for it, as you can really invest in the characters’ mounting paranoia that way, plus as a viewer it remains more interesting to chew over afterwards. Even the time period that Cube is set in isn’t clear, because the design of the environment could just as easily be some grungy Alien style spaceship set in a dystopian future or it could conceivably be a present day/near future R&D facility for some shadowy organisation. Similarly, and again to the film’s credit (and what keeps it on the right side of the horror/sci-fi blend), the traps have a kind of down-and-dirty feel, occasionally feeling a little like something from James Bond, but more often being like a precursor to the kind of thing found in Saw, and the effects they have are suitably graphic too, with a nice “Ick!” factor. Natali’s direction is assured and the pacing is good, it never wastes so much as a second of its lean 90 minutes and at no time do I recall it ever feeling baggy or slow, for even when there’s not much physical action happening the emphasis is on the characters and the ever-unravelling mystery of the Cube.

Inventive, clever and tense, it’s a testament to the power of a good idea. Highly recommended.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

2 Comments on “Cube”

  1. Rag says:

    He’s not wrong. This film is a treasure. And one that is quite deeply buried by quite a number of less gripping films that had the big production and promotion budgets, but never reached the excellence of this film.

    Don’t watch this expecting an action packed gore fest. But on a psycological level, it really works. The tension of waking up in a completely alien (and soon it becomes apparent, hostile) location with a bunch of complete strangers, is not a new concept. But, in my opinion, has rarely been done so well.

    The concept and script are tight. The costumes and scenery work (not only in creating the right atmosphere, but in ensuring that the film won’t age excessively). And the cast, being unknowns, is better. As there is no distraction of ‘oh, that’s thingy playing a role’.

    If you want to get deep, it is a beautiful commentry on humanity and the selfishness/survival instinct of people put into a hostile environment with no emotional ties. If you don’t, it’s a great story. Well shot, well scripted and well delivered.

    All in all it is a gripping and immersive film.

    This is the kind of film I feel that Saw wanted to be. But they fell back on the Hollywood precepts. Explain too much, and pretty it up with loads of gore.

    • Sarah Law says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Both with the review and the comment. I can’t wait to see Natali’s Splice, he seems like a director with a fantastic eye :)

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