Directed by: Vincenzo Natali || Produced by: Mehra Meh, Betty Orr, Colin Brunton
Screenplay by: Andre Bijelic, Graeme Manson, Vincenzo Natali || Starring: Nicole de Boeer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Maurice Dean Wint
Music by: Mark Korven || Cinematography: Derek Korven || Edited by: John Sanders || Country: Canada || Language: English
Running Time: 90 minutes
Many people enjoy mind-games, logic riddles, or mathematical or grammatical puzzles. Sudoku, crossword puzzles, visual mazes, and various other types of brain teasers are popular among travelers eager to kill time between destinations or senior citizens with mental muscles to flex. For my part, I’ve never felt drawn to these types of exercises given their lack of incentive, repetitiveness, and ability to make myself look dumb.
But what if one was forced to conduct these mental exercises? And what if the rewards of success — or the risks of failure — were a matter of life and death? Therein lies an attractive narrative premise.
Films like 127 Hours (2010), Misery (1990), Saw (2004), and Green Room (2016) have to do with characters trapped in perilous situations where they must think, rather than fight, their way to freedom. These sorts of cinematic premises I find fascinating, because there is clear, relatable motivation for our heroes to navigate an otherwise pointless maze of physical, psychological, and social barriers in order to survive.
A film that takes this concept to its thematic extreme is Cube (1997), directed and co-written by Vincenzo Natali (see also, Splice , Nothing ), a Kafkaesque, mind-bending science-fiction film that recalls the works of Terry Gilliam (e.g. Brazil ) and David Cronenberg. Cube is often described as a horror feature, but for my part, the film plays more like a psychological thriller with obvious sci-fi elements and colorful genre window-dressings. There is little in Cube that plays on its audience’s direct fears of death, feelings of dread before a horrifying encounter, or horror itself, but tension and hopelessness pervades every nook cranny of its story.
Thematically speaking, Cube is an inventive metaphor for the human condition, and is yet another example in the ongoing argument against spelling everything out for the audience, against narrative backstory, and in support of narrative ambiguity. The sooner one stops asking why the characters are in their current situation, how they got there, and what the ultimate point of their escape is, the sooner and better one will enjoy the film. On the one hand, Cube provides enough immediate, non-thematic incentive for our motley crew to seek freedom (no food, water, shelter, or means of survival within the titular prison, claustrophobia, etc.), but on the other hand, the revelation of the pointlessness of rationalizing the cube itself is, in fact, the point of the film.
To back up a bit, Cube follows the story of six strangers who awake to find themselves trapped in a cube-shaped room, connected to six other seemingly identical cube-shaped rooms on all six sides, which in turn, are connected to further cubic rooms: A cubical prison. None of these characters (all of whom are named after real-life penitentiaries) have any idea how they arrived at this facility or why, and to get meaningless spoilers out of the way, they never find out why. For that is the ultimate meaning of Cube — there is none!
As nihilistic as that may sound, allegorical contemplation (not rationalization) of the titular setting is half the fun of the movie. If one is to embrace the allegorical undertones of Cube to its fullest extent, the eponymous, Kafkaesque complex could be interpreted as yet another clever sci-fi metaphor for society itself, but not an exaggerated totalitarian, dystopian, Orwellian future society, but rather our “ordinary” modern one. To quote an Amazon.com reviewer:
[Let the cube represent a system, created by man. Call it “civilization” or “society” or whatever you want, but I’ll refer to it as the “system”. Like the cast, we are all trapped in this system today, this post-modern rat race full of glass, steel, concrete, and plastic. I’d wager most everyone’s ultimate dream is to escape it, too.
It’s almost as if the movie is saying it’s not the system’s fault. Yes, the system was built by man, but by man collectively, not by any single man (remember the line: “There is no one at the top. Big Brother is not watching you.”). The system, this movie is trying to say, is not evil. The system can’t be evil. It’s not really anything. It just IS.
Men often do evil things through the system — but that doesn’t make the system evil. People often blame the system when they should really be blaming themselves. Because in a system such as this one, the most lethal traps aren’t the ones hiding in the cube, but rather the people with whom you’re stuck in the cube.]
The appeal of a film like Cube, strange as it may sound, is its simplicity, plainness, and monotony. It mimics the dull grind and mind-numbing repetitiveness of ordinary life with a visually unforgettable set-design, as well as arguably the best use of character stereotypes since the original Star Trek (1966-1969). Though its cast’s overacting is a consistent weakness, and the film’s themes aren’t as cryptic as most low-budget science-fiction that isn’t complete trash, like I said, Cube’s strength is its blunt honesty. It is cinematic expression of blunt — but not spiteful or hate-filled or cynical — commentary on human society.
Technically speaking, the film is near flawless. You don’t need to be a film student to realize Vincenzo Natali uses the same set over and over and over again, but within the context of the story and the film-viewing experience, the transitions are seamless. His use of color and lighting, though at times superfluous to the greater narrative, is impeccable throughout, and in certain key scenes, is powerful. The punishing darkness of the cube’s sarcophagus is rivaled only by the piercing, unknowable high-key lighting of its exterior. You never discover what lies beyond those inner and outer barriers, but in a film such as this, it is to the screenplay’s strength that you do not.
In the end, Cube is a fascinating feature-length picture rendition of an allegorical Kafkaesque labyrinth. It is powerful for its thematic straightforwardness, visual simplicity, and tight storytelling. I’m not usually one for mind-bending puzzles, geometric riddles, and brain-teasers, so perhaps that’s why I find most aspects of day-to-day living so unappealing, if Cube’s allegory is to be taken at face-value. Then again, Cube’s ability to put modern society in perspective, and do it in such a way that you relate to its characters, stereotypical though they are, and are invested in their ultimate fate, makes this disorientating, at times humbling puzzle, so worth it.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Thematically powerful yet conceptually blunt, Cube pays homage to the metaphorical social commentary of Terry Gilliam and grisly mind of David Cronenberg while going light on the dark cynicism of the former and the relentless blood ‘n guts of the latter. If you have the patience for repetitive visuals and so-so acting, Cube’s greater artistic design and honest direction will satisfy you.
— However… its cast is mediocre at best and distractingly amateurish at worst. Though its set-design is creative, it’s not exactly diverse.
? Leaven: What are you doing? You can’t quit now. It’s not your fault!
Worth: I have nothing… to live for out there.
Leaven: What is out there?
Worth: Boundless human stupidity.
Leaven: I can live with that.