Cube Zero (2004)
With a title like Cube Zero you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a horror film about a sugar free beverage. It is, in fact, the third instalment in the Cube series, but as this was made in the post-Phantom Menace “noughties” it is, naturally, a prequel and though the result never quite hits the same bar as Cube did, it’s a big improvement over the massively disappointing Cube 2: Hypercube and is watchable, if nothing special.
Perhaps learning lessons from the mistakes of Hypercube, writer and director Ernie Barbarash very wisely decides to go back to basics with this entry and bring it closer in tone, style and ideas to what made the original such a great film; so gone are the overtly sci-fi overtones and the dreadful CGI FX and back is the grungy, dark, moody, claustrophobic atmosphere and the focus on character with the emphasis on the psychological nature of the set-up. Another thing it has going for it is that in going backwards they’ve ditched the implausible, badly-animated CGI boobytraps and gone back to the simpler, nastier traps (so real props and prosthetics, with perhaps just some CGI enhancement), which are far more effective as they not only elicit that immediate, knee-jerk “Yowch!” reaction, but they simply seem more real and therefore more threatening.
Plotwise it partly uses the same device and structure with which anyone who has followed the series up to this point will be familiar – several complete strangers awaken inside a cube-shaped room with their recent memories erased and no idea how they got their or why, and they slowly discover that they are trapped inside a fiendish puzzle where entering the wrong room may prove fatal as they are boobytrapped with deadly devices designed to instantly kill and maim. What distinguishes this entry in the series from the others, however, is that for the first time we see the story unfold from two perspectives – the now-familiar point of view of the captives, as mentioned, but we also finally see other strands taking place on the outside of the Cube, from the point of view of the captors (it’s actually a little more nuanced than that in the end, but to say too much would be to spoil it).
On the one hand, this is used to raise some interesting ideas and explore the nature of the “game” behind the Cube in a slightly different way, another layer of the onion to peel away and feel trapped by. It also means that by tackling it from this perspective it doesn’t come across as merely a rehash of the original movie and has its own sense of purpose, giving the impression it’s been thought out more than the average sequel. There are, however, some notable downsides – the first is that by flipping between the two narratives there is never really that same sense of sustained tension and urgency that was the heartbeat pulsing away at the back of Cube’s story and keeping it alive. The second is that along the way it does seem a little disjointed and messy at times, and marrying the two strands can occasionally be seen as a contrivance. The other thing, and personally speaking this was the hardest thing to reconcile, is that the original film was really at its best as a standalone feature, it deliberately left certain questions unanswered, and the mystery and ambiguity of some details were part of its strength rather than a weakness. By necessity of taking the route that it has and of being a prequel, Cube Zero shatters some of that hard-earned mystique by answering some of those questions in a way which was never really necessary or wanted. Furthermore, it’s arguable that whenever this kind of information is filled-in it’s never as interesting as it was when left unanswered, when we as audience members could go away and ponder it endlessly (something which could be called “Prequelitis”, as what they amount to in most cases is needlessly filling in backstory – afterall, how much less interesting is Darth Vader now, knowing that under the suit he’s nothing more than a floppy-haired emo kid with mother issues?). One other problem was the “twist” in the ending, which can’t be discussed for spoiling too much, but I can only assume was meant to be a satisfying little nod to fans of the first movie and to definitely cement this as a prequel – but in actual fact it comes across as contrived and slightly silly too, one idea that was trying to be a bit too clever and ultimately falls flat.
Cube Zero isn’t perfect by a long way, but it at least attempts to explore some new themes and ideas, to build on the Cube mythos, but also to retain those things that made the first film so good. It never quite gripped me, but it was enjoyable enough and was perfectly watchable, even manages to have a few points of interest of its own (even if some of them are a little clichéd) rather than merely be content to be a clone or of the lazy, soulless “bigger, better, faster!” stable of sequel/prequel making. Passable but not memorable.
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