(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)
Written by Andre Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, and Graeme Manson
Directed by Vincenzo Natali
(This review is LIGHTLY SPOILERISH; although it never discusses the end of the film, it does get quite a bit into the movie's characters, as well as the overall point I believe the director is trying to make.)
Part of the audience's fun during a high-concept horror film, as any fan of the genre can tell you, is in slowly piecing together who exactly would go to the lengths we've been seeing just to torture and kill people, and why they'd go to all that trouble in the first place. Is it a psychotic genius, getting revenge on people who have been acquitted of crimes because of technicalities? Is it a government experiment to see how much abuse humans can endure before cracking? I know -- maybe it's all an alien experiment taking place in outer space! One of the most horrifying options, though, or at least in my opinion, is the one that Franz Kafka famously proposed in his novels, that there's not anybody behind the horrific torture chamber at all; that it's merely the result of a corporate, bureaucratic process, with individuals working on different details but no one ever quite understanding the horror-show nature of the entire thing put together.
That's the central question driving the 1997 low-budget Canadian sleeper hit Cube, one of the oddest horror films you're likely to ever see, in that it could easily be categorized under avant-garde science-fiction or existential drama as well. Ultimately, what Cube does is spin the most important question of high-concept horror around on its head: what if the true horror of a violent funhouse isn't its ingenious torture traps at all, but in the way the humans inside the thing slowly go crazy over the course of the ride? If you remove the things that make for a civilized society, will people bother behaving in a civilized way anymore? If you put these people's very survival at stake, will they eventually turn on each other to save themselves? And if so, are different motivations needed for different personality types? Cube does what high-concept horror isn't supposed to do, which is what makes it such an intriguing high-concept horror film; it quickly moves the discussion away from the big-budget traps and shadowy puppetmasters, and more to the ways that typical humans would actually react in such situations. That's the true horror, the film's creators seem to be arguing, and they do a pretty good job making the argument too.
The film starts simply enough, almost too simply: six people wake up to find themselves in a spartan metal cube, 14 by 14 by 14 feet in size, one hatch-like door in the center of all six walls, the entire thing seemingly decorated by the set designers of Tron. None of them know what's going on. None of them can remember being brought there. They're all wearing Mao-style Communist jumpsuits, monogrammed with their names and all of them several sizes too big. One of them discovers that all her jewelry is missing; another discovers that her glasses remain, even though she only needs them for close-up reading. The doors all lead to other rooms that look exactly like the first, only different colors; and some of the rooms are booby-trapped as well, as discovered by one of the characters, a cop named Quentin who seems at first like he's going to be the movie's hero.
So, the characters do what they always do in these types of movies -- they start exploring, and also start learning expository information about each other via innocuous conversation between rooms. It turns out, for example, that the guy who seems the smartest about the rooms' sensors is actually a famous prison escapee; that the girl with glasses is a nervous math-major undergraduate still living with her parents; that one of the characters happens to be a doctor, mostly so that she can remind us that they'll die in about four or five days from dehydration, if they don't find some water or a way out by then.
But a curious thing happens as they continue exploring the space; that is, nothing happens, other than constantly coming across random rooms that have boobytraps, that they first discover through trial and error but then by the mathematician figuring out a code buried in each room's doorway serial number. This is the antithesis of the high-concept horror movie, as fans know; such a film is supposed to feature bloodier and bloodier deaths as it continues, being issued from a variety of evermore complex torture devices. There is an ennui, though, with this particular chamber of death; no matter how far they travel, no matter which direction they go, they just keep encountering an endless series of strangely-lit cubes, with absolutely no derivation in their size or layout.
Hours pass, or perhaps it's days; it's impossible to know in such an environment. The strangers start getting on each other's nerves, and we also start discovering intriguing characters flaws in them all; the cop it turns out is a misogynist who's prone to violence, the doctor a conspiracy theorist on the edge of sanity when it comes to the subject of government coverups. Most damning, though, is the accidental admission by our white-collar nihilist of the group, named Worth; that the last architectural assignment at his office before his abduction had been to design a giant shell to house a type of structure they're now in, and that he hadn't bothered asking what the shell was going to be used for, even knowing that people would be placed inside of it afterwards.
The tensions, lack of sleep and nourishment, and character flaws escalate the conflict between the characters; soon they themselves are arguing almost violently over who it is behind the entire experience, with the different characters taking on the various typical arguments seen in the horror fan community. Where things start getting truly horrific, though, is after the group stumbles across yet another jumpsuit-clad victim, an autistic man named Miller who all can agree is going to hinder them significantly. Need proof? Check out the sound-triggered trap they must get through, which keeps getting randomly set off by the autistic man's various yelps and screams. Suddenly it becomes a life-or-death question -- do you abandon the mentally challenged guy in order to increase your own chances of survival? Are you even human if you do such a thing, and do you deserve to have the help of the others in your group? Or, given that they've been wandering around for days with no sign of exit in sight, is the question even worth bothering to ask? Is even the attempt to move from room to room ultimately a futile one, guaranteed to result in faster death than by simply staying still?
Now, everything I just described happens in the first half-hour of the movie; and I'm not going to mention anything else about the entire rest of the plot, because a big part of enjoying Cube is in not knowing what's going to happen next. I will say this, though, that as the movie continues, the central theme of what I'm talking about is supported more and more -- that the true horror in such a situation is not the actual traps at all, but rather in how quickly and profoundly a lot of humans will shed everything humane about them in order to survive, everything decent and kind and that humans are supposed to be about. In fact, you could easily see the eponymous cube of this film in metaphorical terms if you wanted, having it stand for any situation where the normal rules of society suddenly don't apply, whether that's war or prison or life under a fascist state. It's not the whirring bloody knives that are the really gruesome detail, the film's creators seem to argue -- it's the fact that you'd be so willing to leave a mentally retarded person behind to die, even though it gives you only the tiniest increase in odds of you actually surviving the entire ordeal.
I admit, the writing's not perfect -- there are parts of the very convoluted backstory that could use better explanations, and sometimes characters who will act nonsensically when it's convenient plotwise for them to do so. In general, though, I found Cube to be a real surprise; a thinking person's picture, loitering in the bargain bin of Canadian low-budget horror, which flips the genre on its head while still delivering everything a horror fan likes about the genre. If you like existential pathos with your unstoppable killing machines, Cube's the one for you.
Out of 10:
--According to the script, the entire structure they're in is roughly the same size as Wrigley Field or other small sports arena, making it entirely possible to hide within any large industrial park in the world; in fact, although not explicitly stated, it'd be very easy to disguise the shell Worth designed as a nondescript warehouse, and in fact maybe that was the entire purpose of the shell. This is in response to all the online reviews I've read, wondering where such a group could possibly store such an impossibly huge structure, with many of these reviewers concluding that aliens must be behind the entire thing because outer space is the only place you could put it. It ain't that big, only 450 feet per side; it just seems endless, remember, because the rooms move around inside of the shell as well.
--For those who are curious, only one full cube was made for the film, along with some flat walls hung at a distance to simulate nearby rooms. It was a pain, though, to change the color of the room, so all the various scenes in various colors were actually shot in a row. Given that the special effects were donated for free by the company in charge, as a way of supporting beginner Toronto filmmakers, that actually makes Cube's budget the same as an tiny indie character drama, believe it or not.
--Also for those who are curious, this movie is a veritable Who's Who of good-looking Canadian television character actors; among others, it stars Nicole deBoer of The Dead Zone and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, David Hewlett of Stargate: Atlantis, Maurice Dean Wint of Earth: Final Conflict, Wayne Robson of PSI Factor, and Nicky Guadagni of Queer as Folk. That's a lot of good-looking Canadian television character actors!
--And yes, there's been both a sequel made to this movie (Hypercube), as well as a prequel (Cube Zero), neither of which have anything to do with the original creative team, both of which are considered cheap cash-ins by many fans.
Best viewed: with a philosophy major, a slam poet, a high-school atheist and an NPR producer, at midnight in your apartment while incredibly baked. Hey, why not create your own existential living hell while watching another one on TV, right?
Next in my queue list: Equus, the touching story of a boy's love for horses. No, seriously, this kid really loves horses.