Viking Night: Cube
By Bruce Hall
October 19, 2016
It's one of the most primal human fears - to literally wake up in a strange place, with no idea how you've arrived. Pretty scary, right? It's like that dream where all your teeth fall out and you're getting chased by a terminator with Abraham Lincoln's head and Angelina Jolie's body.
You know that one? Sure you do.
Now imagine the place where you're stranded is nothing more than an interlocking series of small, Steampunk inspired square rooms. It's kind of like that stupid Maze Level that exists in every first person shooter, or the dungeon level of Goldfinger's mountain complex. Oh...there are also hidden traps that when triggered will burn you to a crisp, or chop you into bits like an egg slicer. For the cherry on top, imagine you're stuck in this place with four strangers, each with an oddly specific set of skills or personality traits.
That's the premise of Cube, Vincenzo Natali's 1997 indie darling about…a group of people who all wake up in an interlocking series of mechanical death rooms for no apparent reason.
There's Rennes (Wayne Robson), an international thief, renowned as an escape artist. Leaven (Nicole de Boer) is a socially awkward, 20 something math whiz. Holloway (Nicky Guadagni) is a doctor, because this is the kind of movie where at some point, someone has to say “It's okay - I'm a doctor.” As an added bonus, she's also a right wing conspiracy nut, because those are the times in which we live.
Next there's Worth (David Hewlett), a sullen introvert who probably writes movie reviews on the internet in his free time. Kazan (Andrew Miller) is a young man with autism. And since Hollywood thinks all autistic people have super powers, Kazan has an overtly specific role to play in this adventure. Last up is Quentin, who is a cop, which means he's the Guy Who Takes Charge. And, because this is also the kind of movie where at some point someone has to say “It's okay. I'm a cop.”
Basically, this is a disaster movie crossed with a psychological thriller, only the “disaster” is a slowly unfolding series of deadly mind games instead of an earthquake, or a tornado filled with sharks. Rennes demonstrates a knack for detecting traps, so at Quentin's direction, the party sets out to try and find an exit. It goes well at first, but you know they're ALL not going to make it, right? So when things begin to go predictably wrong, the characters inevitably end up in open conflict.
Because of this, and since Cube takes place in an environment where every room is largely identical in appearance, the story relies heavily on these somewhat stock characters to drive the plot. Obviously, I'm about to call this lack of depth out as a weakness. And yes, I realize I've already run through most of the adjectives you'd use on a film that you think is lacking in imagination. But this is not an unimaginative film; quite the opposite. My problem isn't the bland character types, or even the stupid dialogue. Cube is a bigger budget Twilight Zone episode, and the stark characterizations make it easier to illustrate the desired parable. The problem is, Cube can't seem to figure out what the hell that is.
Holloway's tin foil hat ramblings and Worth's relentless nihilism grow tiresome pretty quickly. At some point in the film, each and every one of these characters will say something that makes you roll your eyes and mutter “Please die next…oh, PLEASE die next…”.
There is a conversation around the midpoint of the film, where the screenplay seems to be trying to speak to us through the characters. Even if I wanted to spoil it I couldn't, because I just don't know what the hell anyone was talking about. There's a lot of rambling doubletalk about the Military-Industrial Complex, Corporate Greed, Human Sloth and Greed, Freedom of Choice, and lots of other high minded things you might hear brought up at a beat poetry reading.
In other words, It's a little like listening to someone yell about taking action against both everything and nothing. It evidently took three people to write this story (Natali, along with Andre Bijelic and Graeme Manson), and they came up with what feels like the loudest, emptiest parable ever written. That's unfortunate, because it's obvious that a lot of thought went into the Cube itself, and into the level of ingenuity required to solve it. THAT part of the film is absolutely fascinating, and it's the reason I couldn't look away no matter how frustrated I became.
The film does benefit from the core concept of “seemingly mismatched group placed in situation where inaction is not an option.” Trying to solve the Cube could be fatal, but doing nothing is as sure a death sentence as anything. That's definitely a great stage on which to examine human frailty. Unfortunately, Cube flails around the concept and pays it lip service, but it never commits. It's interesting, but never quite enough to stop feeling like a cheesy gimmick. Simply put, it consistently falls short of conveying whatever metaphorical aspirations it has.
There's enough here to keep you from looking away until the end, but even the damn ending feels halfhearted. For all of Cube's pretension toward deeper meaning, it just ends up feeling pretty damn conventional. Today, Cube would probably have been either a Sci-Fi Channel (new spelling be damned) one off or a straight-to-DVD production. I'm not saying it isn't worth seeing, because I really love the concept. I just…don't think they did anything with it. There's some delicious meat on those bones, but sadly, it's still just mostly bones.