Directed by Vincenzo Natali.
Starring Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson, and Maurice Dean Wint.
A group of strangers awake to find themselves trapped within a strange cube-like prison from which there is no escape.
The last year and a half have certainly given us a thorough course of confinement in the name of keeping us safe and healthy. However, imagine awakening in a bizarre prison, with no memory of how you got there, where you are or who your fellow inmates were and from which there is no means of escape. This brings me to the subject of today’s entry, the mysterious, surreal and highly original Canadian sci-fi horror Cube.
The story and the setting are Cube’s greatest assets, the relatively simple premise proving surprisingly complex as things proceed and the characters gradually begin to understand the various facets of the titular prison. What makes Cube unique is how much it derives its suspense from mathematics, the calculating of equations and prime numbers emerging as a vital survival tool. As someone who failed maths (and life), I already find the topic terrifying and to see it used in a horror film caused me to break out in a cold sweat trying to follow the numbers as if I was about to sit an exam that my life depended on.
Although filmed on a low budget and using a single, albeit repeatedly re-coloured, set, writer/director Vincenzo Natali manages to make a film that, strangely, feels suffocating and claustrophobic yet also large in scope. The titular cube, designed by mathematician David W. Pravicia (who has the honour of being perhaps the first person to serve as a mathematics consultant on a horror film), is a fascinating beast. Its series of endless, ever-rotating rooms somehow managing to feel varied despite their almost identical appearance, the brief glimpses of its outer shell giving the impression of a vast monstrous monolith from which escape is a mere fantasy.
The part I loved the most about the story is that, in a change from my usual desire to know everything, aside from a minor revelation, we never find out who built the cube and why. While the sequel and prequel (which admittedly I haven’t seen) likely shed light on the origins of the cube, I honestly have no desire to watch them for fear it might ruin what I feel is an already terrifying enough premise. Quite simply, this is an instance where not knowing is what makes it scary.
Natali’s direction is solid, managing to make the most of his limited resources to deliver an intense experience. His use of up close handheld camera work making the already claustrophobic mood all the more suffocating as the characters gradually begin to lose their minds. While the film is highly repetitive, the pace is surprisingly tight as the characters move room to room, problem to problem, with a frenetic energy that keeps the excitement going. The slower moments at least serving to develop the characters and toss in an extra spanner to drive them off course.
Although Cube starts off suggesting a Saw like series of trap rooms resulting in a brutal death, the film surprisingly avoids this approach for much of its runtime. While the traps do play a part in dissuading the protagonists from entering certain rooms, the horror comes from the psychological breakdown of the characters. The paranoia that one of them might be an insider sent to torment the others, about the sinister forces that would have built the cube and the increasing desperation as some resign themselves to never escaping its confines. It’s the growing nihilism that I found most interesting, with the possibility that the characters might never find a way out and that the Cube might be, in a possible nod to Satre’s play No Exit, some kind of literal sci-fi infused Hell.
Returning to the traps, they are the stuff that Jigsaw wishes he could build. We have motion-activated acid sprays, flame throwers and, perhaps most notably, razor-sharp wires that cut one hapless victim into hundreds of smaller parts. And that’s just the opening sequence. My favourite scene of the whole film comes when the protagonists have to move through a booby-trapped room that will slice them to pieces if they make even the slightest of sounds, the challenge made worse by having to enter the room from the ceiling. The tension is unbearable as they, one by one, silently climb down to the next exit in a manner that calls to mind a scene from a Mission: Impossible film, complete with the obligatory close call “Oh shit” moment in which all is almost lost.
The characters and acting are where the film strains itself, with the cast, while acting their socks off, giving performances that, although fine when downplaying their emotions, can often veer into fits of almost unintentionally hilarious overacting. Although, even when they do overact, the performances are still, at the very least entertaining, particularly when the paranoia and desperation begin to kick in, allowing for some wonderfully silly moments of capital “A” acting. David Hewlett emerged as a highlight in the role of Worth, a nihilistic young man whose grim outlook on life leaves him none too fussed about his predicament. Hewlett giving a suitably downbeat performance that avoids replicating the hysterics of his co-stars.
With a unique mathematically infused approach to psychological horror and Natali’s claustrophobic direction, Cube manages to overcome some shaky performances to emerge as a captivating and intelligent piece of late 1990s sci-fi horror custom made for a cult following.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★