Cube (1997) dir. Vincenzo Natali
Starring: Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni
Ok, this might be a biased opinion, considering I work for the Canadian Film Centre who made this film, but its not. This a genuine review with all it's praise due. Made through the CFC Feature Film Project, for under $500,000, “Cube” is a mini marvel – part high concept sci-fi, part horror film, part art film. A wholly intriguing concoction of ideas and action, which avoids its potentially gimmicky hook. Not only one of the best examples of low budget filmmaking but one of the best Canadian films ever made.
The film opens in a large 14x14 square room, a solitary man in coveralls wakes up confused. On each wall a door leads to another similar but alternatively-coloured room. As the man steps into the adjacent room he sets off a deadly boobie trap which literally slices him into a dozen pieces. This is the obstacle our 6 heroes find themselves in when they wake up from unconsciousness inexplicably imprisoned in this cube. They are just regular people, Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a working class cop who assumes the leadership role, Worth (David Hewlett), a cynical and quiet but shifty bookworm type, Holloway (Nicky Guardini), a liberal doctor, Rennes (Wayne Robson), a criminal escape artist, Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a math student and Kazan (Andrew Miller) a mentally challenged idiot savant.
Through a process of observation and deduction they realize not all rooms are boobie trapped, and that a set of numbers etched in between each door identifies the cartesian coordinate location of the room. The team of inmates move from room to room negotiating the traps in an effort to find the edge of the cube and thus a door to the outside. As much as the traps present a danger to them it’s the conflict of personalities between the inmates which provides the greatest threat to their escape.
Writers Vincenzo Natali and Andre Bijelic who conceived of the idea while living together as roommates borrow from classic science fiction and literature. The obvious reference is Kafka’s "The Trial", a story which has the main protagonist imprisoned for a crime he’s never told of. This existential element blankets the entire film. We never know who set up the cube, why they were chosen, how they physically got there. The characters speculate and hypothesize, but it only seems to distract them from the task at hand. While this might seem like an element of convenience for Natali and Bijelic to skirt doing the tough work, ambiguities always make for the best kind of science fiction.
Richard Matheson's stamp of existential thought provoking horror is all over the film as well from his novels to his great Twilight Zone episodes. The interaction of the characters echoes the isolating set-up of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” – specifically Quentin’s power struggle with Holloway and Worth, which elevates itself gradually to deadly aggression and violence.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” also provides inspiration - Hitchcock’s self-imposed constraints shooting a film entirely in one lifeboat. Natali is up against similar challenges but he admirably crafts each scene with a variety of creative camera angles and changes actors’ blocking to eschew any visual tedium which threatens to set in.
Whether intentional or not, it’s also hard not find influence of "Cube" in the TV series “Lost”. The unexplained new world the characters find themselves in, the leadership power struggles, the visual conceit of ‘the numbers’, the Dharma Initiative-style name-plated coveralls the characters wear and the existential theme of destiny and fate.
Story wise "Cube”is virtually bullet-proof. Often in these extreme scenarios of crisis the audience is forced to be put in the shoes of the characters, and ask themselves, ‘what would I do in this situation?’, which is when plot holes and logical inconsistencies emerge. Natali seems to have all bases covers. Though his detailed mathematical explanations of their location within the cube threatens to go over our head, the internal logic feels right and thus we believe it.
The film builds with astonishing momentum and pays off its existential conundrum with absolute satisfaction. Twists are timed well, not telegraphed or forced upon us with deux ex machine-like convenience. And Natali perfectly balances his artful ambiguities with hardcore genre pleasures.
“Cube” was included in my colleague Pascal Trottier’s essay, “The Best Low Budget Films”. “Cube” is not only belongs on this list, but also as one of the most ingenius and creative science fiction films ever made.
"Cube" screened last night as the inaugural film of my new Programming series, "Canadian Cinema in Revue"