Cube Review (1997)

Spoiler-free so you can read before you watch

Cube Review (1997)

Horrorific content by penguin_pete on July 21st, 2018 | Movie Review | Survival, Sci-Fi, Mind Bender, Thriller, Isolation

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It’s about seven people stuck in an enigmatic lethal structure trying to escape.

Cube was directed by Vincenzo Natali (who also directed Splice and Haunter) and stars Nicole De Boer (from Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil), Nicky Guadagni  and David Hewlett  (from Survivor).

Don't look for a reason... Look for a way out.

Cube Review

“Escape Room” - The Game!

It doesn’t get any more minimalist and abstract than Cube. This cult classic stands out, and it’s not so much for its originality as for its brutal reduction of the horror genre to its most fundamental essence. Seven characters materialize in a structure with no idea how they got there and only hazy recollections of who they are. They try to escape the structure, but it’s loaded with deadly traps. Along the way they try to puzzle out the logic of their predicament and squabble among themselves. “Will they escape?” is their sole plot and motivation.

Any old characters will work, so we have Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), an overbearing bully whose sole purpose is to make you hope he gets killed as soon as possible; Rennes (Wayne Robson), a shifty ex-con who acts like this isn’t his first rodeo; Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), medical doctor and obligatory den mother to the group; Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a math geek with broken glasses; Worth (David Hewlett), a hardboiled cynic pain in the ass; Kazan (Andrew Miller), a gibbering autistic who’s good with numbers but functionally retarded; and Alderson (Julian Richings), whose job is to die so fast he doesn’t leave a grease spot.

Hey, all the characters are named after prisons in some configuration or another (combining Leaven and Worth gives Leavenworth). Could this be a clue? There’s numbers etched at the hatchways connecting each cubical room, is that a clue? Is all this a metaphor for cryptocurrency forming via a blockchain? No, wait, this movie predates Bitcoin by twelve years. Oh well, it’s fun to wonder and guess futilely with the occasional merciless deathtrap if you guess wrong, isn’t it?

Well-worn but still thriving subgenre

Cube is a prime example of the classic trope we call the ontological mystery, a minimalist story-telling method that’s a long-running favorite of the post-modernist movement and second-year theater students. The classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit" is an uber-example and said to be the inspiration for Cube. But the premise has yet deeper roots, to the existentialist theater with Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Contemporary counterparts include Circle and Exam. And for the ultimate influence on the genre, consult Franz Kafka.

Even though we’ve seen a lot of these, audiences continue to love them in small doses because of its efficient story-telling. You get to cut through the labored set-up and get right to the good stuff. Characters’ motivations are easy to figure out: They want to solve the puzzle, and so do we. The writer is free to give the characters deep back-stories or minimal development, and to invest them with whatever quirks make them more interesting. You get easy conflict just by having the trapped participants turn on each other. You can read all kinds of deep existentialist metaphors into it. Best of all, you can make these on a shoestring budget with the limited set and all, and still have it come off looking great.

Only a couple flaws hold Cube back from perfection. The acting cast is all unknowns, and they do their best, but are indelibly stuck in the indie leagues. The scenery gets monotonous as hell, even though that's the point. Quentin has a big neon sign on his forehead that says "I'm the villain of the cast!" from the second he opens his mouth, and in fact all the characters are one stereotype or another. But really, working within the movie's limits, it's pretty hard to fault the producers for these small shortcomings.

If somebody hadn’t made it, it would have made itself

Cube takes the time to hand us plenty of hypotheses about what it all means. Worth, our chief Greek chorus, concludes that ultimately the Cube formed accidentally, with multiple teams of the military-industrial complex designing it unawares. Given the chance to escape, he even balks, because outside the Cube is nothing but “boundless human stupidity.” We hear you loud and clear, Worth, but you’re not exactly the inspiring hero we want to root for anyway.

Cube's futile world-view and bleak atmosphere makes it a pretty grim movie to sit through, but it’s only a tight ninety minutes running time. In the end, its job is to raise questions, not answer them. The enigmatic structure within this puzzling movie is the sterile, distilled essence of most horror movies, which is what makes it such a classic. The horror genre itself, after all, pretty much demands we show a group of characters struggling to survive and mostly failing, whether it be against invaders from Mars, a coven of vampires, or an outbreak of the latest virus. Cube simply strips away the fluff, leaving us to deal with the cold metal fractal of its merciless existence. In a way, it’s one of those movies that are scary to people who normally aren’t scared by movies, because the Cube, or something like it, very much could be made and we wouldn’t be too surprised to find one lurking inside a secret government project somewhere.

Come to that, we’re lucky it isn’t a reality TV game show already. Teens would line up to volunteer, once you point out that their Instagram hits would go through the roof.

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