“Cube: 20th Anniversary Special Edition” (1997)
Running Time: 90 minutes
Written & Directed by: Vincenzo Natali
Featuring: Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Wayne Robson
Rennes: “No more talking. No more guessing. Don’t even think about nothing that’s not right in front of you. That’s the real challenge. You’ve gotta save yourselves from yourselves.”
In 1997 a low budget Canadian film by second time director Vincenzo Natali called “Cube” (1997), a genre film that was filled with genre actors. As with many directors that rely on a low budget Natali produced a genre film that was part horror, part science fiction as well as having a heavy element of Kafkaesque conspiracy thriller where there seems to be no rhyme or reason behind the situation the protagonists find themselves in which then means there is little need for a ton of exposition. Basically people are captured and put into a cube within a cube, they then have to try and escape. The brilliant part of the movie is that fact that each room is (within the film) designed individually with specific traps that are aimed to kill the inhabitants of the Cube before they can escape.
Five people – Quentin, Worth, Holloway, Rennes, and Leaven – wake up in a room. None of them knows where they are or how they got there. Quentin informs the others that there is more than one room and that some rooms contain traps, which he learned by nearly being killed by one. Rennes assumes each trap is triggered by a motion detector and tests each room by throwing one of his boots in first. Leaven notices numbers inscribed in the passageways between rooms. Quentin recognizes Rennes as “the Wren”, an escape artist renowned for getting out of jails. After declaring one room trap-free, Rennes enters and is killed when he is sprayed with acid. The others realize that there are different kinds of detectors, and Quentin deduces that this trap was triggered by heat.
Quentin believes each person has a reason for being there. Leaven is a mathematics student, Holloway a physician and conspiracy theorist, and the surly Worth declines to talk about himself. Leaven hypothesizes that any room marked with a prime number is a trap. They find a mentally challenged man named Kazan, whom Holloway insists they bring along. When Quentin nearly dies in a room deemed safe by Leaven’s calculations, tensions rise due to personality conflicts and lack of faith in Leaven’s system.
Genre films are filled with stories of people trapped in a room or other space for whatever reason, either to solve a problem, escape or any other reason a writer may come up with. One of the earliest and greatest trapped in a room films is the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Rope” (1948), which had another gimmick, it was supposed to look like a one take and done film – of course it isn’t, now its pretty easy to see where the cuts are. What Natali has done which is kind of unique, is to reduce the elements of the story to escape, thereby eradicating the questions who, why and what – it becomes pretty clear that these people need to get out – everything else becomes secondary – ultimately even their relationships with one another becomes expendable.
Even though we follow the characters from room to room, we are essentially in the same room for a majority of the film, we need to establish the leaders and followers, as well as the power dynamics within this new world the varied characters now inhabit. Of course this changes over the course of the film, it is done so quite believably as well as subtlety thanks to a very good screenplay as well as excellent character actors who make this film somewhat believable.
This film worked well in 1997, as well as still being an excellent watch now for a number of reasons, the room (actually rooms in the film), the different set-ups, traps as well as varying color schemes are some of the main reasons. On a small budget invention is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking particularly in genre movies, so a big debt of gratitude has to be laid at the feet of not only Natali but also the production designer Jasna Stefanovic, who has gone on to have a good career but it is here where a reputation is made.
Of course when you have a film that essentially takes place in one room with the same actors on-screen for most of the film you had better cast well, which this was, with Canadian character actors Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole de Boer, and David Hewlett. All three of these actors had and have continued to have a lot of experience in television, especially genre television. Nicole de Boer went on to have a major role in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) as well as the terrific “Dead Zone” (2002 – 2007), David Hewlett who is a great comic actor, went on to play a major part in the television version of the ongoing “Stargate” universe.
One of the great effects of this film was that post-1997 the trapped in a room film became a sub-genre of other genres, not just horror films but thrillers, science fiction as well as the drama movie. Most if not all are poor imitations of “Cube”.
If you have never seen this film, or do not own it, you should go out and buy this now, it is a fantastic film as well as a great example of genre film-making from a director who should have had a bigger career than he has so far. What is amusing is that this film spawned two more sequels, “Cube²: Hypercube” (2002) and “Cube Zero” (2004) which while acceptable do something unforgivable, try and give answers to questions that should never be asked.
“Cube: 20th Anniversary Special Edition” is out now on DVD & Blu-ray.
Audio commentary with co-writer/director Vincenzo Natali, co-writer Andrea Bijelic and actor David Hewlitt
Interview with actress Nicole de Boer