Cube was directed by Vincenzo Natali (In the Tall Grass, Splice), written by Natali, Andre Bijelic, and Graeme Manson (Orphan Black, Snowpiercer TV series), and stars Nicole de Boer (The Dead Zone, Private Eyes), Maurice Dean Wint (Haven, The Kid Detective), David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis, Nightmare Alley), Andrew Miller (Nothing, The Secret Circle), Nicky Guadagni (Ready or Not, Lars and the Real Girl), Julian Richings (Hall, Spare Parts) and Wayne Robson (Dolores Claiborne, Cold Creek Manor). It follows a group of strangers who wake up inside of a trap-laden labyrinth as they work their way out.
The Plot: Limited locations are nothing new to movies, they ideally create a sense of urgency and condense a tale to its bare necessities. Cube nails that ideal purpose, stripping back details for quite a while to great effect.
Working his way through wherever he may be, Quentin (Wint) comes across Worth (Hewlett) and Holloway (Guadagni), who are just as lost as he is. Following shortly after are Leaven (de Boer) and Rennes (Robson). None of them know where they are, why they’re there, or how they got there. It’s apparent through the actions of the characters that wherever they are, they haven’t been there long. One thing is for certain: every room looks the same, but not every room acts the same. Since Quentin and Rennes have had run-ins with trapped rooms, making escape difficult.
Natali allows for the characters to take inventory and discuss theories, effectively weaving even more mystery into the adventure. Hope for the group arises with Rennes, but he doesn’t last very long, so the rest continue to tread and retread ground until they reach an end. While it’s sparse on traditional narrative, the writers drop enough clues to retain interest, including an intermittent mechanical noise, three sets of three-digit numbers in the vestibules between rooms, and, of course, the traps. Along the way, the wanderers encounter Kazan (Miller), who’s assimilated into the group. They deal with competing directions for as long as they can until an escape plan can be concocted.
Time may run thin for the characters, but the story doesn’t. The simplest of goals works as a way to keep them moving: survival. Cube is loaded with allegory and theories, which sustain the story to a surprising degree. It may be a wafer-thin plot, but it’s so calculated that it works.
The Characters: The script creates archetypes for each actor to inhabit. Depth isn’t paramount in a movie like this, though the writers are kind enough to offer personality as compensation.
Quentin is a cop with a family. He’s solely focused on getting out to see his wife and three kids again, as he hasn’t made his peace with them. It’s an ambiguous backstory, but as the movie continues, his cryptic language can be decoded. Leadership is his ideal role, as he’s vindictive about methodology, forcing everyone to conform to his direction and lambasting those who don’t.
Butting heads with him more frequently than most is Worth, who’s a nihilistic office worker none too pressed about escape since he lacks motivation, family, friends, faith, and pets. His help is offered at the necessary times but more often than not, he just keeps his mouth shut and only opens it to describe the perceived futility of their situation.
Leaven is the workhorse of the group, much to her surprise. Before her arrival in the cube, she was just a normal young adult going to college and hanging out with her family, but now she has to step up and try to make sense of the numbers that mark each room. Easily the most hopeful, she gets along fairly well with Quentin and Holloway and is lukewarm to Worth. Kazan is an autistic savant, lacking in communication skills.
The movie thankfully doesn’t simplify him to being a burden on the group, instead making him an integral member of it while adding some quirks to his behaviour, like his preference for certain coloured rooms and love of gumdrops. Holloway acts as his guide and has erratic outbursts but isn’t given much else to work with.
Arcs are inverted in Cube, with the roles shifting as it goes on, making for an interesting shuffle in the hierarchy of the group. Adding to this is the unravelling of several characters. In this situation, which seems to improve over time, one would think that optimism would begin to permeate the players, but the opposite occurs, making for a nice subversion of expectations. Glib dialogue and increasing outbursts give more personality and clues, which are appreciated.
The Adventure: Thrills are in no short supply, but what keeps Cube interesting is the sense of discovery rooted in the premise. Whether that be a new trap, theory, or mathematical method of tracking their journey, there’s always something new.
Starting with a bunch of characters meandering a rat maze doesn’t set a high standard, but through their eventual cooperation, systems are devised to reduce the odds of being killed by any one of a variety of traps. Rennes introduces a good starting point by using his boots to test for traps that are motion-activated. It’s primitive and can’t account for heat sensors or anything complex, but it gives the characters a way to begin their journey. That journey spans every direction possible; up, down, left, right, forward, and backward. The mere shape of the setting imbues the movie with an impossible scale that makes for a complex exploration effort.
When the boot method shows its fallibility, the numbers are called into question and Leaven discovers that rooms marked with three prime numbers are safe to traverse. For a time, this gets the group around safely, but upon further inspection, her theory is wrong and needs correction. Correction and backtracking are integrated into Cube in an organic way, instead of having the characters make a convenient beeline for the optimal path, the script has them reevaluate their plans and traverse their environment in a different way than expected; it didn’t need to set the characters back, but the addition makes for a more realistically complicated imprisonment.
By the last 20 minutes, Cube has created a perfectly gripping expanse that’s untangled and traversed by its occupants that’s elevated by its questions and clues. The writers focus on the adventure elements which make the assumed edge of the structure yearned for by the characters and audience alike.
The Technics: Natali and the rest of the crew worked very well together, creating a great movie within a small budget, though there are some rough patches worth noting.
Production designer Jasna Stefanovic (Cypher, Tideland) and the entire art department created a single room for the entire movie to be filmed in and half of another room for transitions. A profoundly simple method of switching the panels with different coloured ones to give the illusion of scale was used to terrifically convincing effect, paired with the insertion of several different traps throughout the runtime, the limited location is remarkably versatile. Cinematography isn’t friendly to this set though, with a lot of the shots looking too similar for comfort. While this may have accidentally worked to convey a sense of claustrophobia in some cases, most of the time it feels unintentionally flat.
The control of the pacing wavers in the final act, with the final act coming across as rushed because of some fight sequences, and a little cliche with the choice of survivor(s). Performances aren’t unanimously strong either, with Guadagni playing way too hard into her character’s mood swings. Wint lapses into overacting mode from time to time as well, though the dialogue sometimes leaves both of them stranded, as does the subpar score punctuating some scenes. The rest of the cast does a fine job.
Cube has earned its cult following by turning a limited location into a convincing labyrinth replete with a sense of exploration, stakes, and mystery. It’s smart, well-made, and stands as one of the best of its kind.
Cube is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital platforms from Lionsgate. And if the various sequels and the remake aren’t enough to keep you going, FilmTagger has a few more viewing suggestions.