318. CUBE (1997)

“Five improbable entities stuffed together into a pit of darkness. No logic, no reason, no explanation, just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the darkness.”–Rod Serling, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”

DIRECTED BY: Vincenzo Natali

FEATURING: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, David Hewlett, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller

PLOT: Apparently selected randomly, people appear in a mysterious, abstract structure which proves to be a vast complex of interconnected cubical rooms harboring random death traps. They struggle to find answers to their predicament and escape. Their lack of trust in each other gradually begins to pose as big a threat to their survival as does the Cube itself.

Still from Cube (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • Cube was shot in twenty days on a sound stage in Toronto with a budget of $350,000 (Canadian), under the auspices of the Canadian Film Center’s “First Feature Project.” CORE Digital Pictures supplied the post-production effects free of charge to show support for the Canadian film industry. It easily made its money back and has developed a cult following since.
  • Only one room was built for the set, although a partial second room was created to be visible through doors between rooms. Gel squares inserted over the lighted wall panels supply color changes.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons, and each name is alleged to have significance for their personalities and fates. Maybe it’s just a fun fan theory?
  • If you search the web for “industrial die holder,” you’ll see what they used for the door handles. Pick one up at the hardware store and add it to your arcane prop collection.
  • Cube has two sequels. Cube 2: Hypercube is basically more of the same, with new and more devious traps, while Cube Zero was an unapologetic B-movie prequel that supplied unnecessary answers to the Cube’s existence. Writer/director Natali was not involved in the sequels.
  • A remake, to be directed by , was announced in 2015.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a claustrophobic production like Cube, our choices are narrowed down to which architectural gimmick makes the deepest impression. We might as well spoil as little as possible and select the first one, where a bald character gets diced by a fast-moving razor-wire trap. It’s all the more shocking because he’s the face featured on all the film posters. The fact that he freezes a few second before collapsing into a pile of chunky salsa just adds to the impact: it’s a Wile E. Coyote moment (and a visual pun, because the character got cubed), yet doesn’t play silly enough to lose us.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aliens or government?, prime number permutations, the edge

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Cube is a great example of how a movie’s premise doesn’t need to dictate its weirdness factor. The plot is straight out of the pulp horror ghetto, but the execution is original and intriguing enough that it transcends its genre. The developments between the characters and the structure of their prison lends itself to a puzzle just tantalizing enough to lead viewers into thinking they’re right around the corner from solving it, without ever actually answering much. The end result is an engineer’s fever dream.


Original trailer for Cube

COMMENTS: Are you an aspiring filmmaker with limited resources and budget who’s bursting with inspiration? Have we got the genre for you! The ontological mystery is a tried-and-true fantasy sub-genre in which we take a random handful of characters, stuff them into an enigmatic prison, give them no memory of how or why this happened, and then sit back and watch it unfold. The Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” said to be the inspiration for this film, is a classic example, and it’s far from the first time this scenario has been used. It’s a great story-telling vehicle which cuts through the setup to get to the good parts: character development and plot points. You can frame Cube as a nihilistic exercise in slaughter-porn, a deep and thoughtful meditation on the meaning of existence, or anything in between.

Like all good ontological mysteries, Cube lets the hazardous environment fade into the background and makes the story more about the characters and their interactions. Early on we hear the line “you’ve gotta save yourselves from yourselves.” Truer words were never spoken—the small party of explorers become more of a threat to each other than the deathtraps, turning on their partners with petty squabbles and paranoid suspicions. Cop Quentin appears to be the main character, but we’re spoiling nothing to point out that his rotten attitude is obvious from his first scene: he starts out barking orders at the other members of the cast, including Rennes, who at least has a plan for navigating the structure, while Quentin has nothing to contribute but being overbearing. Holloway, a medical doctor, and Leaven, a math student with a pair of broken glasses, provide the soul of the cast. They both remain semi-hopeful with plans for surviving, unlike Worth (David Hewlett), a sourpuss cynic who claims to have knowledge of how the hideous structure was built. Rounding out the cast is Kazan (Andrew Miller), an autistic savant who’s good with numbers, though the calculations in this film seldom get hairy enough to warrant his skill.

What’s with the calculations? Well, each cubical room has a set of numbers, and the party tries to derive some meaning from them to try to guess what rooms are trapped, or what rooms lead to possible salvation. In fact, the glum little crew seems to hit on a new theory every few minutes or so. The cubical maze, almost as if it had a sadistic consciousness all its own, delights in toying with the cast by gamely leading them along for a few rooms before subverting their latest theory with a new twist. All along, the crew speculates: Is this a prison? A punishment? A test? An experiment? Is there a reason why they’re here? Who built this monstrosity, and why? In each round of speculation, there’s usually two characters taking up opposite sides of the debate. But they ultimately solve nothing, in part because they’re all spiraling down into their own neurotic states of despair as time wears on. Except for Worth, who correctly surmises the answer to most of the existential questions when he says there’s nothing outside the cube anyway but “boundless human stupidity.”

At a tight hour-and-a-half running time, Cube runs its course just minutes short of when it would have worn out its welcome, with most of its questions unanswered and even the ending left ambiguous. Likewise, it’s hard to pin down what makes this film special. As we’ve noted, the core premise isn’t completely original. The characters are in an interesting mix, but none of them so startling that we haven’t met them before. What mostly sets this movie apart is its brutalist philosophy. Here is the booby-trapped building, here are the people, now shut up and watch. The Saw franchise, concurrent with Cube, gives us an explanation eventually, and the villain behind the plot is revealed to have a motive. Circle (2015), another ontological mystery movie named after a geometric abstraction, gives us a zonkers explanation, but gets it over with fast. Even the aforementioned “Twilight Zone” episode gives us a punchline ending. Cube is a shifting fractal set apart from the rest of the line; it exists because it exists and its only purpose is to make us wonder about its purpose. You can paint your own meanings onto it. The sequels were notable both for trying to tack on an explanation and for being roundly dismissed by most fans as unsatisfactory, and the current plans to reboot the whole franchise from scratch are being met with weary groans. Sometimes you just have to let a toy be its own cool puzzle on the shelf, you know?

G. Smalley adds: Pete was right to place Cube in the context of a long line of “ontological mysteries” that stretch back long before “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” The earliest examples of characters caught in a meaningless landscape or cubicle are plays like Sartre’s “No Exit” (1944, three characters trapped in a room) and Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (1953, two tramps waiting eternally at a crossroads). Some literalists can’t see past Cube‘s superficial mystery (who the heck built this thing?), or its similarities to 2004’s torture porn originator Saw, to grasp why this one is different. It’s not what the Cube is that matters, but what it represents. Like the inability to leave the drawing room in The Exterminating Angel, the purposeful lack of any explanation is the key to Cube. People naturally assume that, if something follows rules and seems to be constructed by some intelligence, it must have a purpose; and this is the very idea Cube slices and dices with sadistic glee. What could be the reasonable explanation for placing apparently random people into an elaborately constructed, booby-trapped mathematical prison? To train a super-squad capable of escaping from absurd Cubes? The dialogue indicates something bigger. Holloway: “I think we have to ask the big questions.” Worth: “There is nobody up there.” Quentin: “What’s your purpose, Worth?” The Cube reveals an order—an almost maddeningly precise geometrical and mathematical schema—but it has no purpose. Cube is a legitimate descendant of postmodern absurdist texts, but reimagined as sci-fi, with a contemporary conspiracy theory spin and gouts of gore. It’s cubic Godot and high-tech Sartre in a B-movie wrapper, and if you don’t think that’s a weird mix, I’m not sure what to tell you.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…proves surprisingly gripping, in the best ‘Twilight Zone’ tradition.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“It’s an existential, Kafka-esque nightmare with no real resolution, although if you’ve been biding your time waiting to see some high-strung, ham-handed bickering on-screen, this is your A-ticket.”–Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)

“…a bizarre, frightening, and clever new low-budget movie with a ‘Twilight Zone’-ish premise…”–Jeffery M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Cube (1997)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Extended Video Interview: Vincenzo Natali, Director of Splice – Slashfilm brings us a 35 minute interview with director Vincenzo Natali on Cube and other matters

Cube Movies Wiki – A fan wiki page featuring a detailed plot synopsis

plot explanation – what’s the purpose of the cube? – Watch the fun as the denizens of Stack Exchange try to explain this movie

The Cube Movies Explained: Analysis | Meaning of the Cube Movies Franchise – An even bigger spoilsport indulges in a lengthy fan theory

‘Cube’ Reboot ‘Cubed’ Being Developed by Lionsgate – 2015 report on the still-in-development remake

HALLOWEEN: The Best “Twilight Zone” Movies – 12: “Five Characters…” / Cube – Interesting “Horror 101” blog post comparing “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” and Cube

Cube alternate ending (deleted scene from sci-fi horror film; 1997)– Description of an alternate ending of Cube (the footage was deliberately destroyed)

LIST CANDIDATE: CUBE (1997)Ryan Aarset‘s original review of the film for this site

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Math Goes to the Movies – For the mathematically inclined, this book contains a chapter on the numbers behind Cube (and also a unit on Pi)

HOME VIDEO INFO: Although Cube has been released multiple times (including an original short-run DVD from Trimark, and separate Canadian and European releases), the 2004 Lionsgate DVD (buy) is the easiest to find today. It features commentary from Natali, deleted scenes, an interview with Nicole de Boer, concept art and storyboards, and trailers.

A 3 (or 4)-DVD Cube series box set with Hypercube and Cube Zero alongside the original (buy) was released in the UK. It comes with multiple caveat emptors: it’s PAL/region 2, only so it won’t play on standard U.S. players; has no advertised special features (although there must be something on that mysterious fourth disc); is out-of-print and pricey; and has received poor reviews from Amazon consumers.

Cube has yet to be released on Blu-ray in Region A/North America (shame!), but if you have a Region B or all-region player you can acquire a UK release (buy) with the Lionsgate extras.

Cube is also available on demand and appears (irregularly) on streaming services.

(This movie was originally nominated for review by “Tona,” who said it was “weird for the ambiguity, the paranoic atmosphere.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “318. CUBE (1997)”

  1. I think I’ll stick with the “pulp horror ghetto”. Far off the weird-scale because there’s too much character-talk and discussion about the mysterious cube. Rather rational in it’s approach (and pretty much pulp when it comes to the character conflicts), although the atmosphere has something which cannot be covered properly. Pretty entertaining nevertheless. “Beyond the Black Rainbow” is better candidate here because it consequently moves into the abstract instead of simply problematising it.

  2. I’m not sure I ENTIRELY agree with this being put on the list, but this review definitely let me see the film in a new light. I did know it was unique, but this helped me focus on exactly why it is – and while I wouldn’t have thought of making the Exterminating Angel comparison, it actually makes a lot of sense retrospectively. So thanks for that, Pete.

    Incidentally, I feel like the whole topic of the ontological mystery is something this site could devote an article to…

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