CULT CORNER: Cube (1997)

Sarah ponders life itself via Vincenzo Natali’s mindbending sci-fi classic. 

Who made it?: Vincenzo Natali (Director/Co-Writer), André Bijelic, Graeme Manson (Co-Writers), Betty Orr, Mehra Meh (Producers), The Feature Film Project/Odeon Films/Columbia TriStar.

Who’s in it?: Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, Andrew Miller, Julian Richings, Wayne Robson. 

Tagline: “Fear… Paranoia… Suspicion… Desperation.”

IMDb rating: 7.3/10.

Imagine waking up and finding yourself in a maze of cube-like rooms that seem to stretch on to infinity. You have no idea how you got there, or why. You don’t know who created the maze, or if they’re even still around. All you know is what’s in front of you – booby traps in certain rooms, a choice of four doors in each from which to exit to the next, and a small handful of people just like you who want the exact same thing: To escape. The movie I’m describing is titled simply Cube, but to sum it up in even simpler terms, it’s really just Life.

Life is like a video game, but without any of the comforts. There is no instruction manual or reset button, no fantastical feats of modding, or the ability to sign-off and retreat back to a far saner world. What you are left with is the inevitable passage of time, followed just as inevitably by death. But within that time, there are endless opportunities, and a series of never-ending obstacles on your path to whatever it is you aim for. In this case, a way out.

Cube represents all of this. It is an allegory of life. The cubes form a larger cube and that is the world around you. Earth. Inhabiting it are the usual suspects. There’s a cop named Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a doctor, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), Leaven, a student math-whiz with a photographic memory (Nicole de Boer), a pessimistic slacker named Worth (David Hewlett), and Kazan, a man with autism (Andrew Miller).

It is also a horror movie, and a forerunner to the infamous “torture porn” extravaganza that is the Saw series. But what makes Cube work unlike a lot of its copycats is the fear of the unknown. The threat of death from booby traps is always present, but it’s the use of them that is merely grotesque. When shrouded in mystery, things always seem to be larger than life itself. Certainly, for the people in the Cube and the audience watching, it’s the fear of a room being rigged that keeps us on the edge of our seats. There is a great deal of time spent on solving the mystery of how the rooms work, and trying to discover a pattern that the characters can use to avoid the dangerous areas. Patience runs thin in this regard. Characters overheat, grow tired and thirsty, and tension between individuals who were once civil rises. Because of this, the traps start to become one of two dangers, with the people themselves being another threat.

Another initial fear is the one I mentioned at the start of this review. The creepiest part of Cube is not knowing how the characters got there, or who might be watching and listening in. Or… if there is anyone there at all. What if they’re inside, hunting them down, and they just don’t know it yet? This last theory does seem pretty specific, but given a warped state of mind and a little nudge, there is at least some merit to it, even if it is superficial. The nudge comes in the form of a sound – a faint mechanical whirring that can be heard off in the distance. It is low and menacing, and could very well be the cue of approaching creatures, much in the same way as the noise Kayako makes in The Grudge. In reality, however, it is the sound of turning gears as the rooms shift and rearrange like a giant Rubik’s. But within a fear-addled mind, you really start to wonder….

Another aspect of the movie that is well-handled is the production design, especially for a move that cost a mere $365,000. The patterns on the walls of each room are in the shape of circuit boards, and each cube is outfitted with a different but equally striking color, such as red, green or blue. The doors that lead into the other rooms have an interesting design, as well. A bar is turned to unlock each one, and then the door is pulled out of a small vent that connects the rooms together, accompanied by a “whoosh” of uncompressed air. It’s a seemingly small thing, but in a movie that never goes beyond the one set, it feels a lot more substantial. The little details show care in the design, and are appreciated as a result.

Also, because the filmmakers only had once cube to use for all of them, which was small and confined, the passage of time is also taken into account within the execution of the movie. That is to say, there are many scenes of cubes that are either unoccupied or easily navigated, and voiceovers are layered above the footage as characters converse and give general thoughts on their situation. It is handled in a way that elicits thoughts of people trapped in a desert, with the sandy dunes and endless cycles of walking towards a seemingly nonexistent destination – under intense and even hallucinogenic heat – being the most familiar and common comparison. The movie does a great job of conveying both the physical and psychological degradation of each character throughout these sequences.

In that, the movie is ultimately a character study. How do different people in society cope when thrown into a situation together? I’ve spent the majority of my school years in special education classrooms, so I’ve experienced firsthand people like Kazan, who have a very high-functioning form of autism. They have various ticks, can be very loud, and are freaked-out or captivated by seemingly random things. The movie does a very respectful job in portraying this, and so, too, does actor Andrew Miller. Another thing the movie does well is to show just how impatient or uncaring people can be, depending on who they are. The thin shrill of Kazan, the gentle urging of Holloway as she attempts to console him, and the ever-growing annoyance of Quentin are used to great effect as other ways to raise the tension. In this regard, Cube is like a pot of boiling water that is threatening to spill over, but the knob on the stove is stuck and refuses to turn down no matter how hard you budge. And that’s just one of the many examples.

Overall, Cube is a truly solid movie. A spectacularly simple concept married with spectacular execution. The ending will most likely blow your mind, as well. My only recommendation after watching it, is to not watch the other two movies in the trilogy, as they both attempt to explore the backstory behind the Cube and the people in charge of it. These things are best left to the imagination, I think.

Best Scene

Well, the movie sure starts with a bang…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Director Vincenzo Natali deleted a final moment from the film in which it’s shown what is outside the cube. He said when he was paring the film down in the editing room, it was the first thing he removed.
  • Shot on a single 14’x14′ set, made to look like many different cubes through the use of different-coloured panels. The whole film was shot in only twenty days.
  • All of the characters are named after prisons: Quentin (San Quentin, California), Holloway (England), Kazan (Russia), Rennes (France), Alderson (Alderson, West Virginia), Leaven and Worth (Leavenworth, Kansas).
  • To show their support for the Toronto film industry, the special effects company C.O.R.E. did the digital effects for free.

Sarah Bishop

Art lover. Food lover. Connoisseur of weirdness.

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