Collins’ Crypt: Movies I Love - CUBE

In light of Vincenzo Natali's HANNIBAL episode this week, BC revisits his first and best film. 

I've written a lot over the years about my appreciation for the Saw films, which took a concept that sounded best suited for a short film ("Two guys are locked in a bathroom") and managed to spin it into seven features, ultimately offering a tighter mythology than any horror franchise had ever really attempted before or since. With each new sequel, the world continued to expand, minor elements from one film would be explained or re-assessed three films later, and the screenwriters repeatedly went out of their way to clarify even the slightest mysteries - they would never be satisfied with a "It's up to the viewer to decide" type answer.

So it's interesting that some reviews of the first film dubbed it a ripoff of 1997's Cube, a Canadian psychological horror film that was seemingly an influence on the Saw series. Like many of the Saws, Cube begins with a character (Canadian horror staple Julian Richings) getting killed in a death trap, and then the film switches to a group of folks waking up in a strange room with no memory of how they got there. And throughout the film, they form/shatter alliances, question one another about their true motives, and (on occasion) work together to get themselves out of the mess that they've stumbled into. Oh, and every now and then someone dies horribly thanks to a booby trap that could have been avoided.

But that's where the similarities end, as Cube isn't interested in answers or overarching villains; there are two sequels but their connections are flimsy and unless I'm mistaken, no characters appear or even get mentioned in any film but the one in which they were introduced. The third film, Cube Zero, is actually a prequel to the original, which would give it an easy excuse to work in some of the original's characters, even in passing - but they never once offer up that sort of Easter egg (though Zero does have a character that is similar to the original's Kazan, fleshing out part of his story sort of by proxy). And while the sequels do offer up some insight to the Cube's creation and who/what made it and why, it never fully spells everything out - we'll likely never know even all of the basics about its existence.

The sequels also didn't have the involvement of Vincenzo Natali*, who directed and co-wrote the first film, or either of his co-writers (Graeme Manson has since gone on to work on such fare as Orphan Black, the other co-writer, André Bijelic, has apparently quit the business), so we can assume that they had no interest in further developing the world of Cube. Their film keeps all revelations character-based; at a certain point we learn that one character that is trapped in the Cube had designed the outer shell (not the rooms/mechanism itself), but this isn't something meant to trigger a lengthy gob of exposition - it's just a reason for the other characters to stop trusting him, and for him to drop a tiny bit of info that helps the group's math wiz (Nicole de Boer) revise her strategy for keeping them alive.

And that's another thing that makes Cube stick out not, just from Saw but from all "folks trapped in a ____" horror films. Usually it comes down to figuring out why they've been targeted and using brute force to escape (if they do), but in Cube the only way to survive is through math. There are three 3-digit numbers on each of the six doors that lead out of each of the Cube's 17k+ rooms, and de Boer's character Leaven (all of the characters are named after prisons) deduces that the ones with prime numbers lead to traps. But when this proves to be false, the designer character's info helps her discover that the numbers are also coordinates, and if they can solve some of their complicated equations (they lose me with the math stuff here - something about permutations and the powers of prime numbers), they can find their way out while avoiding the deadly traps.

Which sucks, because the traps are kind of awesome. With such a limited cast (and most of them making their way to the film's final five minutes or so), Natali and co. don't get as many opportunities to off their actors as Wan, Bousman and the others did in the Saw films. And it's not always the traps that do them in - one just falls to their death off-screen, in fact! But a bunch of innocent shoes get a first hand account of the Cube designer's twisted genius - before they figure out the number pattern, rooms are tested by throwing a shoe into them, which should trigger any motion detector-based trap. So we see shoes get immolated, sliced, etc - it's kind of funny, and allows Natali to show off his ideas without decimating the cast too quickly.

In short, it's a pretty great little film, but what elevates it to "special" for me is the ingenious way it was put together. This was not a big budget production by any means (well south of a million dollars), but Natali got every dollar on screen by working a little magic. As the terrific commentary track reveals, they only actually had one complete Cube room to work with (and another three-sided one for wider shots), and not a lot of money for visual FX. So to keep the film from being too monotonous, the set was designed with clear walls that could be fitted with different colored gels, which when lit would give the impression of red rooms, green rooms, blue rooms, etc. So they'd do scenes that required red walls, then switch the color to say, green (a process that took about an hour), and do scenes that took place in green rooms. With careful planning and editing, it easily creates the idea of a huge labyrinthine structure, all while almost never leaving that one 14x14 set. I can't tell you how many horror films have been undone by a director failing to establish the geography within an actual house, so for Natali and his production designers to avoid this problem despite having almost nowhere to actually go is beyond extraordinary. When the characters end up falling into a room that they had already been in before, the audience can probably figure it out before the camera actually shows us the proof - they've done that good of a job giving each room its own look.

During the height of the Saw series' popularity, we were often assaulted with ripoff films, but almost all of them focused on the wrong thing (namely, the torture scenes), and I'd often wish I could be seeing numerous Saw ripoffs that were swiping the complicated storyline aspects instead of trying to find new ways to pry off a victim's fingernails. But really, what I wanted were films that were more like Cube, giving us something unique and tickling the brain cells a bit - and created by folks who understood that if we had a reason to care about the characters and situation, it wouldn't matter that we couldn't follow the advanced mathematics and such. And in some ways I'm glad that the sequels went DTV and seemingly killed the series' franchise potential (Cube Zero was released ten years ago; I highly doubt a Cube 4 will be coming along anytime soon), as it would almost assuredly get to a point where it started explaining everything, ruining it. It doesn't matter where the Cube is located or if the surviving character actually makes it to the real world again - seeing him/her get to the "end" is all we needed.

A 3D remake (or reboot, I forget) was threatened a few years ago during the height of the format's popularity, but it has seemingly gone away, which is fine by me. Since the film favored practical FX over CGI (there are only a few digital shots in the film) the film hasn't dated like many other films of that period have, and without any pop culture or technological references, there's absolutely no reason to remake the film - it works just as well now as it did in 1997. And the lesser sequels (Zero is OK, but I found Hypercube to be nearly unwatchable) just make it look that much better, assuming you bothered to watch them. I wish Natali had a more prosperous career (his last film, Haunter, was barely released despite starring Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin), but all of his films are interesting and unique, something that probably wouldn't be the case if he was swallowed up by the Hollywood machine. And even if all his following films had sucked, his name would always carry weight with me thanks to Cube - so he's got that going for him.

*I was inspired to revisit the film after seeing that Natali directed this week's Hannibal! He also gave us the polarizing Splice - as you can imagine, I'm on the pro-Splice team, aka the right one.

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