Since its release in 1997, Vincenzo Natali’s Cube has become a minor cult classic. There were two sequels–Cube 2: Hypercube (terrible but memorable) and Cube Zero (technically better but also more boring)–and Natali went on to make Splice and is working on In the Tall Grass, a Stephen King/Joe Hill adaptation, which suggests this minimal-budget sci-fi/horror film made an effective calling card. As it should: “effective” is the word for it.
Cube begins with a man waking up in a monochromatic room with steel doors in the middle of each wall, the floor, and the ceiling. He’s wearing a jumpsuit. He’s confused.
He discovers that the doors lead to rooms identical to the one he’s in, except for the color. Ostensibly it’s a game of “pick a door, any door,” so he does… and a razor wire screen whooshes through him and dices him into, well, cubes. It’s a startling, gross, darkly comedic look at what’s to come.
The film then moves on to its gradually gathered-up cast, a pressure-cooker combination of Quentin (Maurice De Wint), a take-charge cop; Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a free clinic doctor with a thing for conspiracy theories; Worth (David Hewlett), a disengaged combination of slacker aesthetic, depression, and nihilism; Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a slightly snippy math major; and Kazan (Andrew Miller), who has <i>Rain Man</i>-style autism. Over the course of the movie, alliances form and splinter as the tension forces the characters to reveal themselves. As escape artist Rennes tells them early on, they have to save themselves from themselves–the traps in the rooms aren’t the only ones that have been laid for them.
That genuine tension is part of what makes Cube work. Sure, maybe no one told Nicole de Boer or Natali that you don’t have to wrinkle your nose with concentration for ten seconds to determine that a number ending in “five” isn’t prime, and yes, there are some awkward casting choices and some equally awkward dialogue (“Holy, holy cats!”), but the development of dread is excruciating and real. It’s the disintegration of social interaction, the way slight flirtation spirals out into obsession, the way mutual antagonism boils over into violence and murder, and the way a boot initially used to check for traps–throw it into the room by the bootlace, wait to see what happens, and then reel it back in–then gets used to beat the shit out of someone. It’s the way solutions seem to appear and then disappear so that the characters can’t consistently know what they’re dealing with.
That’s the horror side of the equation, but Natali has a genuine interest in the science fiction side, too. (He has the advantage of not having to supply any answers.) Cube traffics easily in ideas of conspiracy, bureaucracy, and moral responsibility; it sets up a solvable puzzle, a kind of three-dimensional math problem with the occasional acid gun, and then tosses real people into it and watches as abstract problem-solving becomes a meat grinder. It’s about the human cost of ideas–Worth’s theory of the Cube is that it’s a “forgotten perpetual public works project… you have to use it or you admit it’s pointless”–and the way ideology falters under stress. The end result is compulsively compelling.