When it comes to brainy, weird sci-fi, 1997 was a banner year. A number of films hit the multiplexes that pushed boundaries and set expectations for the audience to do a bit of mental exertion to unpack stories that often hinged on cynical depictions of official power. Big budgets and extravagant effects made films like Contact and Gattaca critical and commercial hits, while Event Horizon and The Fifth Element pushed into mystical territory and the outer limits of the universe. Pi, the following year, wove a complicated scenario around a hell of a lot of math talk. Into this mix, Cube, directed by Vincenzo Natali, appeared like a hopeful pretender, determined to hang with the cool kids despite falling far short on budget and production design. What’s surprising is how well the film pulls it off, owing mainly to the clever unfolding of its bizarro premise.

The film’s title not only describes the object of its mystery, but also the entirety of its set design. From first scene to last, the camera never shows anything beyond the insides of identical, cubical chambers. The opening sequence sets the tone as a crazy-eyed man in prison garb (Julian Richings) awakens in an empty room with no idea how he got there. The walls, ceiling and floor are all aglow with pre-fab panels and access hatches. He climbs into an identical adjoining room, where a wire contraption promptly slices up his entire body. Like a stack of fleshy sugar cubes, he tumbles to pieces.

It’s a shocking opener, and brutally effective for laying out the premise and the stakes. With the introduction of six more characters, it’s clear that some kind of sinister game is going on. None of them knows why they’ve been put inside these rooms, but they do a lot of histrionic posturing as they try to figure it out. Here’s where the film’s low budget shows its seams. While the actors seem perfectly capable of delivering lines and playing to the camera, they also tend to push their performances into overdrive when a subtle touch might have been more effective. It’s like someone spiked the coffee maker at the community theatre with regular instead of decaf.

Maybe the actors were self-conscious about the limitations of the film’s production budget–all the shooting took place within a single room–but the film is so cleverly shot and paced that the constraints don’t feel especially limiting. There is certainly a sense of claustrophobia that sets in, but that adds to the tension and increases sympathy for the characters, who manage to appeal to the audience in different ways. A cop, Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), initially seems to fill the role of the capable leader until his anger and abusiveness turns him into a menace. A doctor, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), and a math student, Leaven (Nicole de Boer), display empathy for their fellow prisoners, especially an autistic guy, Kazan (Andrew Miller), who proves to be the group’s wildcard. Each character is named after a famous prison, hinting at deeper meaning.

In fact, hinting at deeper meaning is exactly what the whole movie is up to. A lot of the huffing and puffing between the characters amounts to various cynical takes on who or what might have created this maze of cubes and trapped them within it. “Only the government could build something this ugly,” Holloway states, but the more chilling scenario, voiced by Worth (David Hewlett), is that there’s no conspiracy at all, just a pointless, bureaucratic snafu that chews people up for no reason. Turns out that the only thing scarier than Big Brother watching is the idea that no one is paying any attention at all.

The perseverating over these themes wears thin as the characters strategize their way from room to room, operating on shifting theories about prime numbers, trying to anticipate which rooms are booby-trapped with death machines and which rooms will lead to the outside. The math talk feels credible enough, offering glimmers of hope of an escape even as it becomes clear that the greater menace lies in the simmering tensions between the characters. The gore of the opening sequence is mostly avoided for the remainder of the run-time–this is not a bloodbath. The film shows just enough violence to give a sense of peril, and just enough sci-fi lingo to hint at malevolent powers without actually showing either of those things. In a couple of years, The Matrix would offer audiences mind-blowing depictions of evil omniscience, and the Saw films would go all-in on carving up strangers trapped in bizarre scenarios, but both of those blockbuster franchises can trace their lineage to Cube, 1997’s scrappy and surprisingly effective underdog.

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