Monday, September 24, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Cube

(1997) Directed by Vincenzo Natali; Written by André Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali and Graeme Manson; Starring: Nicole de Boer, Maurice Dean Wint and David Hewlett; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

Cube is a beguiling mixture of science fiction, horror and brooding drama that challenges our assumptions and compels us to arrive at his our own conclusions.  The debut feature film by director/co-writer Vincent Natali still seems as fresh and inventive today as it did when it debuted 15 years ago.  Natali, who started out as an animator for Toronto-based Nelvana Studios, drew from multiple sources of inspiration for his nightmarish vision, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, Arkadiy Tarkovskiy’s Stalker, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.

The basic story is reminiscent of the classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”  Several individuals wake up in a windowless prison, with no knowledge of how they got there or the identity of their jailers.  The startling opening scene, as one of the prisoners makes a futile attempt to find a way out, sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Within the first few minutes, we’re alerted to the potentially fatal (and gory) consequences that lurk around every corner of this three-dimensional labyrinth. 

One of Cube’s conceits is that its characters are more, or less, than they seem (as illustrated by the autistic savant Kazan, played by David Miller, and the escape artist Rennes played by Wayne Robson).  David Hewlett is suitably absorbing as the enigmatic prisoner Worth, who might just know more about the cube than we’re led to believe.  Nicole de Boer also turns in a noteworthy performance as the surprisingly resourceful and mathematically gifted Leaven.  Nicky Guadagni plays Holloway a free clinic doctor with a penchant for conspiracy theories.  She’s the most vocal member of the group, expressing her indignation about being torn away from her home and being violated by her unseen captors.  Her experience as a prisoner only appears to validate her suspicions.  Maurice Dean Wint provides the only sour note from a performance standpoint, in his over-the-top portrayal of alpha male-turned-sociopath Quentin.  Good or malevolent, significant or ineffectual, everyone has something to contribute to unraveling the mystery of the cube.  Analogous to the parable about the blind men and the elephant, each character holds a different piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the big picture.  The characters deduce their prison’s dimensions and number of cells, which reveals nothing about the cube’s location or ultimate purpose.  It could be in the middle of the Mohave Desert, hundreds of feet underground, or at the bottom of a lake.  We’re left to speculate if it’s all part of  some grand experiment, watched over impassively by unseen individuals, or worse, a terrible machine set in motion with no one on the outside controlling anything.

Natali shot Cube in just 20 days, with a meager budget of approximately $365,000 Canadian.  These severe constraints on time and money dictated the clever utilization of available resources.  One six-walled room, along with a partial three-walled room, could be used to stand in for multiple rooms, creating the illusion that the characters were in a small part of a much larger complex.  Confining everything to the one set tested the resolve of the cast and crew.  Natali likened the claustrophobic arrangement to a “giant Betty Crocker Easy Bake oven,” which, as a side effect, contributed to the tense atmosphere of the film.

Mathematical consistency within the cube was a vital component of the story.  According to his DVD commentary, Natali was “almost phobic” about math, and consulted with a statistician to help him realize the Cartesian coordinates necessary to make the cube prison a reality.  Mathematics almost takes on a supporting role in the film, as Leaven* discovers that prime numbers, may be the key to unlocking the cube’s secrets and finding a way out.

* Fun fact: Not unlike Natali, Nicole de Boer confided that she was “terrible” at math in high school.

Natali crafted a film that was purposefully ambiguous and disorienting, and deliberately avoided any frames of reference to the outside world.  We never learn why any of the characters were selected for their respective fates, or what the cube’s overarching purpose is.  Those who like their movies wrapped up in a neat little package by the end will be frustrated and disappointed.  I found it invigorating, however, to keep guessing about the cube until the very end, and to be content with not having all the answers.  While Cube is obviously the product of several influences, it never seems derivative.  Natali’s first film is also his best.  While the conclusion to the film is not the most marketable decision, it takes us in an infinitely more intriguing direction.


  1. Good review. I liked this movie quite a bit until the ending. No, I didn't mind the ambiguity, it was something else.


    I didn't like where one of the characters all of a sudden turns psycho, everyone is racing through the cubes where once they were extemely careful, and somehow with no tools he takes a handle off a door to use as a weapon, and no one hears him or sees him opening the door to enter their room. It all just felt out of place with the great tension and setup that had come before it.

  2. Thanks, Chip! I agree with your comments about the one character.

    Spoiler Continued)
    ...And I wondered how he managed to pry the handle off in the first place.

  3. Thought this movie was amazing. Never saw the sequels. Are they any good?

    Awesome blog! I didn't know Natali was so obsessed with getting the math right, but the attention to detail makes a big difference.

  4. Thanks for the kinds words, Doug!

    I never watched the sequels, either, but I probably will eventually. I'm not expecting much, though, since Natali wasn't involved.