“Six complete strangers of widely varying personality characteristics are involuntarily placed in an endless maze containing deadly traps.” — IMDb
Director Vincenzo Natali — more recently known for directing episodes of Hannibal, Hemlock Grove, Orphan Black, and Westworld — got his start in the feature film world with 1997’s Cube, an extremely ambitious first project even if it lacks in character development. An episode of The Twilight Zone (“Five Characters in Search of an Exit”) apparently inspired Natali, and he put together the short film Elevated in 1996 to give potential investors in Cube an idea of how the movie would play out. The short is awesome and, in some ways, does an even better job of conveying a descent into madness than its feature film descendant — that slow 180 degree camera rotation of Ellen before she screams, and even just the altered lighting, which I wish they had done more in Cube). It also stars David Hewlett (who plays Worth in Cube) and proves that Natali should do nothing but direct movies that are the perfect blend of cheesy and cerebral.
The plot of Cube centers around a group of strangers who have awoken inside a mysterious cube-shaped enclosure. They have no idea why they were chosen or who has put them there, but they know they need to escape, if only it weren’t for the deadly traps in select rooms…
** SPOILERS! **
Cube is the most interesting type of movie conundrum. For every part of it that draws you in, there’s another that tries to repel you… but the concept is just too damn cool to walk away from. It’s like Saw before Saw was a thing — people trying to escape from complicated and sadistic traps using their mental prowess, a sort of battle of wits. Except in this case, we have absolutely no idea who is responsible for their capture or what their motivation is (though there are several theories mentioned throughout the movie).
That theorizing is responsible for much of the philosophizing and discussion of government conspiracies throughout. The cube itself — this mammoth sarcophagus encasing thousands of bare rooms — is almost a complete mystery, but only almost. Worth reveals that he was responsible for designing the outer shell, but that he had no idea what the project was or even who commissioned it in the first place. Ideas are bounced around about the military industrial complex, “some rich psycho’s entertainment”, even aliens, but Worth says it’s “a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan”, and that it’s being utilized because “you either use it or admit it’s pointless”. It’s referred to as a “forgotten public works project”. It’s an extreme example, but it made some good points about society as a whole — the idea of keeping our heads down and just focusing on what’s in front of us because the big picture is too complicated. The idea of blind selfishness for our own preservation. How apathetic but also how deadly the concept of “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” can be.
The kill in the opening scene was easily the best — in this movie and at least in my top 20 of all time — and laid the groundwork for showing that this maze is not only frustrating, it’s deadly. Ultimately I am just super impressed that my inkling turned out to be true — they filmed the entire movie inside just one cube (with a partial cube that they used for shots where they peered through an open door). They simply changed the colors throughout to give more of the illusion of passing through countless rooms on their way to escape. But really, you get a sufficient sense of being lost within this labyrinth, of losing your own bearings as you follow them through hatch after hatch.
I think anyone who watches this movie will agree that the acting isn’t amazing. The hackneyed dialogue paired with multiple 90s montages of spinning room numbers and funky, whispery music with overlaid cheesy quotes is almost enough to make you forget just how smart of a movie it is.
But the main theme music of Cube, while very much a product of its time, is iconic. Its combination of creepily mechanical sound effects, groaning, whispering, and rhythmic drum beats is pretty amazing, and it should come as no surprise since composer Mark Korven would go on to score The Witch.
Ultimately, it’s just great. Overlook the mediocre acting (aside from Worth, I really enjoyed him) and you’ll be rewarded with a tense, intelligent plot and impressive set design as well as some worthwhile twists along the way. They made not only a sequel but a prequel later on (which I will probably check out even though neither is directed by Natali), and apparently a remake is in the works but currently stalled — now THAT I could get behind.
Rating: 7/10 | Director: Vincenzo Natali | Writer: Vincenzo Natali, Graeme Manson, André Bijelic | Music: Mark Korven | Cinematography: Derek Rogers | Starring: Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, Maurice Dean Wint