Monday 2 August 2010

Obscurity Files #17 - Cube

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. With Splice currently in cinemas, we thought it might be nice to look at Vincenzo Natali's first film, Cube.
More after the jump...

The concept is simple enough. You awake to find yourself in a room. You've been dressed in overalls that have your name stitched into them. You're alone but there are others nearby. There's nothing in the brightly coloured room except six passageways in the walls that lead into other identical rooms. But be careful, some of the rooms are trapped. Poor Alderson doesn't last too long.

This 1997 sci-fi thriller was the directorial debut of Vincenzo Natali, a Canadian/American filmmaker who recently made the Adrien Brody starring Splice. By coincidence, this does share some common themes with Brody's recent action reboot Predators, and can be seen as a clear influence on the Saw franchise, particularly the original. Torture is a theme here, but anyone subjected is dead before they know it.

Sequels have fleshed out the backstory and the driving force behind the Cube, but here all we know is that it's a man made structure built by an unnamed corporation. Once the main characters find themselves all in the same room at the same time, they must figure out why they've been chosen as prisoners of the Cube (as an interesting side-note, all the main characters are named after prisons). Is it all part of some big experiment? Is someone watching them for study or sadistic pleasure? Quentin is the most paranoid of the group and is immediately suspicious of Worth's silence. It takes the calming words of Holloway to balance out the group.

At first they seem to have been chosen at random, but soon they begin to understand the reasoning behind it all. Each has a skill that can be put to use in the Cube; Holloway is a Doctor, Quentin is a cop and Leaven is a maths whizz. The prisoner with the most chance of survival is Rennes, a notorious prison escapee who may lead the group to safety. Then again, maybe not.

Soon they finds clues that may be there to help or hinder them. Leaven starts to notice patterns in the numbers that interconnect each room. If she can crack the code they can determine which rooms are safe to cross and which ones are trapped. Each room has its own complex number system that defines its place within the cube. Once the rooms start to shift around, these numbers are integral to finding the way out. The film takes a turn with the introduction of Kazan, an innocent, mumbling idiot-savant. At first seen as a hinderance to their survival, Kazan is integral to the survival of the group, capable of answering complex mathmatical equations in seconds.

Every time they enter a room you're unsure as to whether it's trapped or not. There's a tension among the characters that you share. At least some of the rooms have the decency to show you that they're trapped, but when you need to be moving quickly, sometimes there's no option but to try and cross them.

Cube is a great example of lo-fi sci-fi in that it has a very easy to explain concept but has no clear resolution. The tension continually builds, and Quentin's insanity and bullying reaches boiling point, leading to a number of confrontations with Worth about his involvement in the building of the Cube. For the safety of himself and the remaining survivors, Worth attacks Quentin and leaves him to rot in one of the shifting rooms. He was bound to catch up, and now he's angry.

When filming on such a low budget, the filmmakers had to find a way to create multiple rooms as cheaply as possible. The way they managed to do this was to build just one and a half rooms. The panels on the walls could be altered to shine different coloured lights to create the illusion of many different rooms, and the half room was used to film them entering and exiting through the passageways. It was quite an ingenious answer to their budgetary problems. This film was made for around 365,000 Canadian Dollars in about 20 shooting days, so any savings they could make benefitted the project. This also includes the casting of no-name actors.

It's an interesting Lord of the Flies style character piece about the effects of cabin fever and the grip of insanity. Come the conclusion, it would have been better for them to work as a team, rather than serving themselves. Quentin is the stand out character. He's a nasty piece of work who keeps the others around purely for his benefit. His descent into madness is gradual but obvious, but he's played quite well by Maurice Dean Wint. All of the actors perform well here and some have continued to work within the sci-fi genre, most notably David Hewlett who recently featured in Vincenzo Natali's Splice.

This film knows it his limitations, but works well as a sci-fi thriller within its quite literally defined boundaries. The sequels are lesser works that subtract from this films impact, but as a stand-alone creation it's quite unique.

Save from obscurity? YES


  1. I was listening to a podcast interview with Vincenzo Natali the other day by Mark Kermode, and Kermode mentioned liking Natali's next movie after Cube, Cypher (2002). I NetFlixed it and watched it and liked it a lot. Also liked his next one after that, Nothing (2003). The two films aren't quite so intense (bloody?) as Cube.

    Nice review!

  2. I like the cube its a mint film! 5 star review