Monthly Archives: December 2017

Saw III (2006)

*. Since this is the one where he finally dies (though he’ll continue to hang around, a lot, in flashbacks), perhaps now’s a good time to ask how we’re meant to feel toward, John Kramer, a.k.a., Jigsaw?
*. In terms of the way he functions, he’s basically just another superhuman, genius serial killer with inexhaustible stores of wealth to fund his depravities.
*. And with only that brief summary I realize I’m already at risk of upsetting his fanboys. Jigsaw himself rejects the label of serial killer, explaining on several occasions that he never kills anyone (“I don’t condone murder and I despise murderers”). For some reason critics have backed him up on this, including the usually reliable Kim Newman. This is mere casuistry. Of course Jigsaw kills his victims, and it’s very much murder in the first degree (planned and deliberate). No jury in the world would acquit. That out of the way . . .
*. Are we meant to feel sympathy for him? He is, after all, dying of a terrible disease. His tests might even be taken as metaphors of how the cure for some cancers is worse than the disease. But does anybody buy his bullshit about how he’s helping people by putting them through hell? Because it worked, and only temporarily, for Amanda doesn’t carry much weight. As with the apologists who say he doesn’t actually kill anyone this strikes me as, well, to repeat: more bullshit. To take just one example from this movie, what about all the people Jeff has to either rescue or let die in his gauntlet? Are they just being used as props? And in all these cases isn’t the punishment a hundred times worse than the crime?

*. In my notes on Saw II I mentioned how it wasn’t a good idea to give Jigsaw so much screen time (a point of view that, I also noted, was very much a minority view). I like him even less here. From being pompous and cruel he has turned bitter and self-pitying. As for what he was trying to do with Amanda, it just doesn’t bear much thinking about. I tried and it got me nowhere.
*. Turning to the movie itself, no I didn’t like it. I mentioned how in Saw II there wasn’t the same brilliant interlocking of the different plot threads as in Saw and here the separate stories are even more disunited. I say that despite the desperate and strained attempt to pull them together at the end, which didn’t work for me at all.
*. I also didn’t care about the two victim-protagonists. Indeed, I had to look up their names when preparing this write-up since I couldn’t remember either of them. And in the end they aren’t even that important since they’re both props in Amanda’s test anyway.
*. As for the tests, they’re not very inventive or a lot of fun. There is more emphasis on physical torture instead of having to beat the clock, and most of them had similar set ups with the victims being crucified in various industrial ways. The exception was the offal death pit, which was just so stupid it went beyond imagining. I like Peter Hartlaub’s take on it: “one incredibly large and intricate torture device in this movie couldn’t have been made without four or five subcontractors, but we’re supposed to believe a mentally unbalanced ex-junkie who weighs 100 pounds put it together in, at most, a few months.” However, in the film’s defence, later entries in the series explain that there was another accomplice, and Shawnee Smith sure looks like she’s been working out.
*. It was a longer film than the first two, and for no good reason. There are a lot of flashbacks but I didn’t see why they were necessary as they didn’t explain much. And just to stick with them for a second, why is it that Amanda’s suffocating Adam is always referred to as a “mercy killing”? It seems pretty violent to me.
*. Criticism, however, is superfluous. By this point we were solidly in franchise territory, which meant that audiences just wanted more of the same with an extension of the back story or (as these things have come to be known) the mythology. An odd, unsatisfying ending both seemed to put an end to things while at the same time promising there would be more. Given the profitability of the series it was a promise that would be easy to keep.

Advertisements

House of 9 (2005)

*. I like how the Voice (credited as the Watcher) begins by telling everyone that he’s sure “they’ve all seen the shows.” The contestants, like the audience watching this movie, know the drill. No need for instructions or explanations. Last man or woman standing gets the cash and a showroom full of glamorous prizes. Let the games begin.
*. In 2005 I think the Watcher has to be referencing shows like Survivor and Big Brother, which both had U.S. debuts in 2000 (though they were taken from Dutch TV originals that had begun airing in 1997). Cube had been released in 1997, but while there are similarities to that film it’s really a bit different and Cube was seen by almost nobody when it first came out. Its cult status was still something new. Battle Royale was released in 2000. Saw had come out just a year earlier and while the Watcher’s lines may have been added later I don’t know how much of an inspiration Saw would have been to the initial concept.
*. Nevertheless, I think we all do get the point. House of 9 belongs to a genre we might call the Game of Death, which can be traced back to sources like The Most Dangerous Game and And Then Were None. What was new in the twenty-first century was the surveillance theme.
*. As for why the Watcher is doing this, his brief introduction gives us this explanation: “I want you to consider yourselves to be mice in a laboratory, rats in a cage if you will, because this is the ultimate test of human character, only here this test is purely for entertainment. My entertainment.”
*. Is he telling the truth? There seems to be a big gap between the experiments a scientist does and the personal gratification provided by mere entertainment. And given how much the Watcher has obviously invested in the project, don’t we think he might have splurged on some better cameras?
*. The way these movies work is pretty simple. We are the Watcher, and the game show format is both simple to understand and effective at creating drama. It’s reality TV, which, while not always scripted, has nothing at all to do with reality. Everything about what we’re seeing is artificial. We’re dropping normal people into an extraordinary, high-pressure situation and watching them come undone.
*. It’s also pared-down filmmaking. As a rule, such movies don’t have much in the way of beginnings (the characters just wake up in a locked room) or endings (with the completion of the game left vague and ambiguous). Most of the action takes place on a single set (like the cube, a grungy bathroom, an elevator, or a futuristic circle). It’s simple stuff, but such simplicity might explain the genre’s popularity with indie writers and directors.
*. You do, however, still need to have a decent script. Here is where House of 9 starts to fall apart. Specifically, it collapses with a house party the contestants decide to throw where nearly everybody gets drunk and stoned while listening to music. This struck me as a totally unbelievable moment, right down to the use of the music to make it all play like an extended pop interlude.
*. What the house party leads to is the first death, which only occurs because (a) everyone is drunk and stoned, and (b) there’s an accident. In other words, the Game of Death has been crossed with an idiot plot, needing this moment of stupidity to get things going.
*. None of the characters are remotely believable. Why is the married guy crazy? Because he’s an artist? Because his wife’s death has triggered a latent lipstick fetish? Would the story have worked if he wasn’t a psychopath? Why is the cop such an idiot about waving his gun around all the time? Why doesn’t the black guy take the cop’s gun after he kills him? And what the hell is Dennis Hopper doing here?
*. Hopper is absolutely dreadful playing an Irish priest. He has no purpose but to cross himself over and over, bless the Spartan meals, and offer up homilies and useless advice like “You must all look inside yourselves, and that which you find there will save you.” I couldn’t make up my mind whether the film was trying to make fun of him or if this was inadvertent. I think it was unintended.
*. I mean, does Father Duffy really say “You need to learn to do unto others as you’d have done to unto you“? He does. That’s hilarious. Guess there wasn’t time for a retake. Or . . . did no one notice?
*. I didn’t like much about this one. The script and performances are poor. The editing was noticeably garbled at times. The premise was just a throwaway. I did like the set, though it seemed far larger than would have been necessary. Also the twist at the end was pretty good. As with Cube, it seems we’re stuck inside a whole Game of Death universe. But then, that may be all the point these movies are making. Life is a game and then you die.

The Method (2005)

*. The Method is one of a spate of locked-room psychological dramas that were all the rage in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The inspiration came from game shows like Survivor and Big Brother and the success of the Saw franchise.
*. The twist here is that it takes the basic premise and sets it in the corporate boardroom. So the emphasis is more on the game show side of things (perhaps The Apprentice, distilled into a two-hour special episode) than it is on the Game of Death concept. Though given what was about to happen to Spain’s economy, the stakes are pretty high.
*. Actually, the stakes are pretty high even without there being any need to (literally) kill off the competition. The way the film works, there’s a parallel drawn between what goes on in the boardroom and the fate of civilization.
*. That may sound a little grand, but it’s hard to miss the apocalyptic note sounded at the end, as Nieves wanders down a deserted street filled with garbage and burning car wrecks. This looks less like the aftermath of a riot than it does the advent of a zombie outbreak. And note how we’ve been prepared for it, as one of the earlier tests set for the group was to imagine themselves in a bunker, the last survivors of a nuclear war.
*. One of the things the group discusses in the bunker scenario is the survival of the species, and the final issue to be determined is who will be able to breed. So when I say the issue to be determined by the “method” has a parallel to what is going to happen to all of us I think it’s a fair point to make. Put another way: the test is obviously a metaphor for something, as the nature of the Dekia Corporation’s business is never even mentioned. And I think it’s something more than just “competition” and the way corporations only obey the law of the jungle. Given all the talk of having children, the final rejection isn’t just personal, it’s a repudiation of the basis of civilized life itself.
*. Having pointed to this larger meaning that I think The Method stretches to embrace, I have to admit that I think it comes up short.
*. In the first place, the gender issue would seem to be front and center but at the end of the day I don’t know if any point is made. Each of the women (including the secretary) seems prepared to use their sexuality at some point, but the two female applicants are undone by it as well. Should we feel sorry for them? I do for Ana, but not as much for Nieves. She’s been playing both Carlos and Fernando.
*. Then there is the political angle. Despite the opening shots of the tower besieged by anti-capitalist rioters, I don’t see where there’s much of a takeaway. Are we meant to be on the side of the rioters? Their point of view is never presented, and at the end they have disappeared — which may be meant to indicate that they have “lost” the battle, along with the final rejection of a human bond between the two last contestants.
*. Given their single sets, ensemble casts and dialogue-driven scripts, a lot of these locked-room movies have the feel of filmed plays, which is in fact what this one is, being based on The Grönholm Method by Jordi Galceran. And overall I think it’s a good script, and a good cast.
*. The flaw here is that there’s no rising tension or any surprising twists. Things play out pretty much as you’d expect and you never really feel that much is at stake. The dramatic high points all underwhelm, at least until the very end. And I don’t know what to make of the sexual interlude in the washrooms being played as a bedroom farce. An attempt to change the mood a bit? It seems out of place.
*. That said, this remains one of the most intriguing of all the locked-room dramas, if only for being so open-ended and ambiguous. The same corporate set-up would be used in the 2009 fim Exam, and, with a lot more splatter, in The Belko Experiment (2016), but in both cases to far less effect. Though it’s understated and a slow burn, this is the film to return to.

Saw II (2005)

*. I’ve said before that a great villain doesn’t need a lot of screen time or lines in the script to establish his presence.
*. That’s an axiom that might have applied to Saw as well, where the Jigsaw killer is rarely seen or heard but is nevertheless always felt to be there. What happens when the rule is broken is demonstrated in Saw II, where we get more Jigsaw (or John Kramer, played by Tobin Bell), and find out that he’s just not good company. He talks a lot, but nothing he says is new or interesting. After a few minutes listening to him I just wanted to move on to something else.
*. I should say that I’m definitely in a minority opinion here, at least among people who like Saw II. Bell’s performance received good reviews and was often held up as one of the film’s highlights. But what can I say? I call them as I see them.
*. I thought Saw was an excellent film. Saw II isn’t nearly as good, which is no surprise, but it’s not a disaster either.
*. It looks very much the same, which also shouldn’t come as a surprise since it had a lot of the same crew, including the same editor and cinematographer as the first film. They had more money to spend on gory effects, so these are more graphic. The story is pretty much the same, with everybody having to play Jigsaw’s complicated games.

*. The script isn’t bad, but it falls down in two respects. In the first place, the people trapped in the house are morons. They don’t even seem to pay any attention to the clues Jigsaw gives them, the first of which was pretty easy and might have solved everything right off the bat. The first thing I thought of was that the numbers were on the back of their heads. If they couldn’t figure that much out, how were they going to get the colours of the spectrum in the right order? And why did they show no interest at all in pursuing what it was they all had in common? To be sure this wouldn’t have helped them much, but they didn’t even consider it.
*. Alas, Donnie Wahlberg’s detective is no brighter, as he just lets Jigsaw pull his strings the whole movie without any plan of his own. With material like this, I wonder if Jigsaw ever considered dumbing his lethal IQ tests down. Way, way down.
*. The other thing about the script is that it doesn’t perform the same fragmented acrobatics as in the first film, where the pieces of the puzzle are all connected but rearranged in interesting ways. Everything here is pretty straightforward, and if you guess what Jigsaw is up to then there’s not much else to care about except to see what the next trap is going to be.
*. The traps. Let’s say something about them, since they are what the film is mainly about. The needle pit is good, but that was about it. The hand trap was so obvious you’d have to be blind not to get it. Jigsaw could have stuck a post-it note on the outside warning anyone about putting their hands in there and it would have been ignored. As for climbing into a furnace . . . well, you get the point. I said these guys were morons.
*. When is a let-down not a let-down? When it’s a sequel to a very good movie. I wasn’t expecting much from Saw II. I got what I expected.

Cube Zero (2004)

*. I mentioned in my notes on Cube that it was all the better for not explaining who or what was behind the structure of the Cube itself. Cube Zero makes what amounts to a really flimsy gesture in that direction and ends up failing badly.
*. There are two points I want to begin with. In the first place, despite being largely set outside the Cube, among its operators, this movie really does nothing to explain what the point of the Cube is. Some kind of political prison, I guess. But also a kind of social psychology experiment. Nor is it made clear who is running it. I think it’s a joint effort put together by some sinister corporation and the government, but the people upstairs are never clearly identified.
*. Second: This movie is widely identified as a prequel to the first Cube. It might be, but there is no compelling reason for thinking so. At the end of the film Wynn is not Kazan, the autistic savant from Cube. He is just someone who has suffered the same fate. This is pointed out by writer-director Ernie Barbarash in his DVD commentary, but I don’t see why anyone would have been confused in the first place. The characters have different prison names and don’t even look similar. They’re also imprisoned in different looking Cubes (with no indication given as to which is the earlier model). So what makes this film a prequel? It’s just another movie set in the same universe.
*. So when I say it fails badly in the explanation department I mean two things. First, that it doesn’t actually explain anything. And second because in attempting to explain at least part of the background it just makes a mess of things.
*. But the messiness goes further than this. The two technicians, for example, are a Pinteresque duo unsure about what it is they’re supposed to be doing. Most of their job seems to be sitting around waiting for orders that they don’t understand when they get. Do they even belong in such a film?
*. Perhaps. I think invoking Pinter is the way to go, since in this film we’ve gone from the existential to the absurd. What I mean by that (in case you’re raising a sceptical eyebrow at the distinction) is that nobody here is questioning the meaning or purpose of their existence or how the Cube will test them. Instead, the situation is just silly.
*. If I had to guess, I’d say the real presiding spirit is Terry Gilliam. I think that was the look they were going for, and the tone as well. The problem is that it’s not a good fit. The comic elements are too broad, and not well integrated with the rest of the picture. The violence is cartoonish, without ever being focused on anything enough to be political.
*. As of this writing, the franchise is dead. I consider that a blessing, as both of the sequels (or prequels) — Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube Zero — were awful. I guess there was just something about the basic idea of Cube that couldn’t be taken out of its box. The concept would certainly have legs, spawning a whole sub-genre that I call the Game of Death movies. Cube presented that concept in its purest, most abstract form. Unfortunately, it was also a dead end.

Saw (2004)

*. Nearly fifteen years later (has it really been that long?) I think we can start to put Saw in context.
*. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Director James Wan and writer/star Leigh Whannell were inspired by low-budget thrillers like The Blair Witch Project and Pi, though I don’t think they took anything from those films but the common-sense idea that, as they put it during their commentary, you should “use your budget limitations to your advantage.”
*. Some people thought it borrowed more from Se7en, but aside from the idea of a moralistic psycho teaching his kidnapped victims some kind of lesson I don’t see much of a connection there either. A more obvious source is Cube, with its protagonists waking up inside a trap they have to escape from. Saw, or more properly the success of Saw, launched what I’ve called the Game of Death genre, but Cube came first and its primacy should be acknowledged.

*. That said, I don’t know if Wan or Whannell had seen Cube or were thinking of it specifically. I also don’t know if they’d seen Phone Booth, another precursor it seems to owe a lot to. Instead, like many young filmmakers they appear to have been drawing bits and pieces from just about everywhere. Danny Glover’s rescue fail, for example, recalls the end of Scatman Crothers in The Shining. And I was thrilled to see that the “Billy” puppet on the tricycle was inspired by a scene from Deep Red, a film which is a personal favourite of mine.
*. So Saw‘s success wasn’t a fluke. James Wan would stumble a bit in his immediate follow-ups but as of this writing he has established himself as Mr. Franchise with the Insidious and Conjuring titles to go along with what became the Saw serial. And while Leigh Whannell hasn’t done much since that stands out (aside from writing Insidious, which I didn’t like), the fact is that Saw has a wonderful script. Despite being so confined it’s never talky, and the twists and kinks in the story, the red herrings and concealments, are terrific. It’s a perfect little puzzle script, weaving together a whole spider’s web of clues. I knew going in that there was a surprise ending and was still taken by surprise. I can’t think of another twist I’ve appreciated as much, including Les Diaboliques.

*. There are also some interesting motifs and counterpoints developed. Take the dead man in the room who isn’t dead: from the guy who Amanda has to cut open to Adam pretending to die from the poison cigarette. According to Wan, some people complained that there were no clues as to what was going on. This is crazy. The whole movie is nothing but clues!
*. What makes things even more complicated is that the script is then put into a blender and pasted into a narrative collage. Saw is one of the least linear films ever made, but this aspect of the presentation isn’t talked about as much because it doesn’t stand out on re-viewings, when you already know the story. The first time you see it, however, it’s very easy to get lost and disoriented, despite the fact that it always plays fair.

*. The editing has the same blender feel to it, going completely bonkers at times. Normally I’m not a fan of this style of cutting, but I think it gets used consistently here and would remain a signature of the series. Still, one does have the sense that a lot of it is meant to cover up either a lack of coverage or some bargain-basement effects (like with the car chase at the end).
*. Something else that stayed the same in the series is the decision to give all the trap scenarios what I call aquarium lighting. That is, if you haven’t cleaned the glass on your aquarium for a couple of years. This is also something I’m usually against, but here it at least fits with the idea of being stuck in a hellish nightmare.

*. The character of Jigsaw would later be filled out but the essential point — that he is trying to help his victims — is fully introduced here. Personally, I don’t know how to feel about this. I mean, how much can we credit it? It’s rank casuistry, make no mistake about that. The idea that Jigsaw never actually kills anyone but that he only offers them a choice and then they end up killing themselves is not one I would like to test in court. And yet this is a line that Jigsaw (and his legions of fans) would repeat over the course of the franchise.
*. I wonder about the process that is at work here. Do we just not want to believe that Jigsaw can be all bad? Did Wan and Whannell put any stock in this bullshit? Or were Jigsaw’s motivations, as Roger Ebert put it, merely a “courtesy” tossed in at the end?
*. Coming out when it did it got tagged with the label of torture porn, but undeservedly so. They couldn’t afford to show much gore, and in any event the torture is more psychological than physical. I tend to be pretty sensitive to torture on film but I wasn’t offended by anything here.
*. Part of turning limitations to your advantage is making full use of the energy of youth. Saw isn’t a mature or polished film but it’s all the better for it. Wan and Whannell brought real talent to the table, and if the whole thing is a gimmick, well, it’s a movie about a gimmick killer. Turn your limitations to your advantage. Some things are exactly what they seem.

Phone Booth (2002)

*. 2002. The year is significant. For one thing, the film’s premise is badly dated. Phone booths in 2002 were no longer familiar urban landmarks. The opening narration tells us that they’re still used (at least by criminals and other low-lifes), but they’re being phased out. The only reason for Stu entering this particular one (“the last booth of its type still in operation . . . scheduled to be torn down”) is to keep calls to his mistress off his cell phone bill.
*. 2002 is also some forty years after Larry Cohen first pitched a movie set in a phone booth to Alfred Hithcock — someone whose love of a challenge led him to at least consider the idea. Alas, it was not to be. They couldn’t figure out a convincing reason for why the entire movie should be so constrained. So instead we got a Joel Schumacher movie. What a falling off was there!
*. The film’s long gestation may also help explain the somewhat quaint morality on display. Andrew Sarris was confused as to why “a moralistic sniper would torture a sleazy publicist into tears of guilt and remorse over what amounts to a few paltry, venial sins.” And Roger Ebert would remark that “The movie is essentially a morality play, and it’s not a surprise to learn that Larry Cohen, the writer, came up with the idea 20 years ago — when there were still phone booths and morality plays.” Or, we might add, morality.
*. But more than all this, 2002 was two years before the release of Saw. And isn’t Phone Booth just Saw on the street? A mysterious serial-killer psycho — Kiefer Sutherland, only credited as the Caller — traps playboy publicist Stuart Shepard (Colin Farrell) in a room. Well, actually a phone booth. We don’t see the Caller but only hear his voice. He wants to play a game. It seems that even though life has been good to Stu he doesn’t appreciate all that he has (as Joel Schumacher puts it on his commentary, Stu is “basically an asshole”). The Caller wants to help change that. It’s a test, of the kind I’ve referred to elsewhere as the Game of Death. Will Stu learn to value what he should? Live or die, it’s his choice.

*. Hell, they even thrown in a black detective (Forest Whitaker, who is about as useful as Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp) and a twist ending that shows just how far ahead of the game the Caller is. With a bit more violence and a tighter script there might have been a franchise here.
*. Poor Katie Holmes. She’s not a homewrecker but seems a good-natured if naive girl who is being strung along and used by Stu. Her fate, once Stu is reunited with his wife? To fade back into the crowd, disappearing from the film without comment.
*. And while I’m feeling sorry for people, let’s also shed a fleeting tear for the poor pizza delivery guy. What was he to the moralizing Caller? A prop? Collateral damage? I mean the bouncer/pimp across the street seems like a shady character and his death is no great loss to society, but why kill the poor schmuck who is stuck in one of the worst jobs in the world?
*. I don’t think this movie works, mainly because the premise is ridiculous and the tension never ratchets up as much as it should. For such a gimmick concept and short running time (only 80 minutes) the script needed to be sharper. There’s a surprising amount of padding here, from the Katie Holmes character (why even have her show up at the barricade?) to the toy robots. Wan and Whannell would have had a lot of fun with those.
*. I’m also iffy about the casting. Colin Farrell doesn’t sound right. That may be down to his not having developed an American accent yet, but then I thought Kiefer Sutherland’s voice was even more unsuited for the Caller. Sutherland just doesn’t have that cruel edge. Maybe if they’d done something to make the connection a little less clear it would have helped. The perfect audio quality of the calls seems unnatural.
*. I’ve said it’s a gimmicky movie, and the split screen is part of this. How often does this work? Here I think it just draws attention to itself without furthering the plot or developing the characters.
*. The ending wasn’t popular. David Edelstein in particular singled it out for criticism, figuring that since the general release date got pushed back four months (because of the D.C. sniper attacks) they should have had time to fix it. But I doubt a project that had been marinating for twenty years or more was going to be helped by a few extra months, and in any event this was a quick-and-dirty production, shot in twelve days. I don’t think they wanted to spend any more time on it.
*. Does the ending seem unearned? Too tidy? Probably a bit of both. But in the wake of Saw and its like I think that it’s mainly just too old fashioned. It’s a movie that in some interesting ways was ahead of its time, but ultimately found itself too far behind.

Cube (1997)

*. Yes, this is the movie that Saw (2004) supposedly ripped off. The group of strangers who wake up in a deathtrap, with no idea how they got there or what is going on. Diabolical puzzles to be solved. The urgent questioning of the value and meaning of their lives. What I’ve called the Game of Death genre basically gets started with Cube.
*. In this initial offering the philosophizing is both more explicit and abstract. Later films in the series (the worthless Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube Zero) would fill in the background, but here we’re really on our own, facing the most basic existential dilemmas. It’s Sartre in a box, though according to director Vincenzo Natali the inspiration was a Twilight Zone episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.”
*. I’ve seen that episode and while there are resemblances (a group of people waking up in a trap with no memory of how they got there or even who they are) I don’t think it’s a story in the same genre as Cube and Saw and all their many imitators. Instead it’s a fantasy, with the most important difference being the ending, where we learn that the five characters aren’t even real but just have the potential to play people in someone else’s imagination.
*. Another influence was Hitchcock’s Lifeboat, with its conceit of a small group trapped in a single small space. The characters in Cube are supposed to be moving from room to room but in reality there was only one set. This saved on costs, but was a real challenge for a first feature. Give Natali, whose first short film, Elevated, was set in an elevator, a lot of credit for pulling it off. (A subsequent Game of Death film, Phone Booth, would play with similar constraints, while a lot of Saw would be set in a single room.)
*. Cube got a lot of bad reviews when it came out, I think because of how overdrawn it all seems. It has a real Little Theatre feel to it, and indeed Natali was afraid it would look like it was being shot on a stage. Adding to this is the fact that a lot of the dialogue comes across as artificially forced and dramatic. It’s a talky movie and not all of the talk is good. Some of the speeches are cringe-inducing, perhaps the worst being Quentin hitting on Leaven: “We are the purpose. The cube is us. We fit, like numbers. A man and a woman, two halves of the equation.” Natali says on the commentary track that this was totally co-writer Graeme Manson’s dialogue but that it was meant to be fun, showing that Quentin had lost it. I guess that’s some excuse.

*. A good example of the forced nature of the drama comes with the introduction of Kazan. I mean, the argument for leaving him behind seems to me to be irrefutable, despite its fascist overtones (Quentin’s line that “It’s the law of the jungle. He’s endangering the pack,” leads to Holloway calling him a Nazi). Facing the deathtrap where everyone has to be absolutely silent I would have ditched him. As it is he almost gets Quentin killed. But alas his presence means we have to listen to the speech about how “we’re all still human beings,” etc.
*. “We have to ask the big questions!” Quentin says, and so they do. What’s the purpose of their existence? Is there a God and is this hell? Did they do anything to deserve this punishment, or is the whole point that there is no point? At least Worth thinks that might be it.
*. Not knowing what is going on highlights the absurdity of the group’s predicament: like us, they don’t know what’s going on and they never will know. They just have to find whatever meaning they can out of the ultimately meaningless challenge of existence.
*. For what it’s worth, Natali saw the Cube itself as being like the monolith in 2001: “I wanted it to be this ominous, ambiguous, enigmatic presence, that therefore feels alien and it’s all the more terrifying because it’s something you can’t comprehend and can’t be explained.” Which is fine, on one level. But the monolith in 2001 does have a meaning, even if it remains merely suggestive. You can’t just accept the Cube with a shrug. It demands we make some attempt at interpretation.
*. It was a bold decision to open with the movie’s best effect, and the Cube’s best kill. But it pays off in setting a tone. Sure this is a low-budget indie (shot in twenty days for a few hundred thousand dollars), but don’t think that it’s going to be easy on you! Anything can still happen.
*. Another bold decision was to have the one black guy (played by Maurice Dean Wint) be the villain. And not just a villain but a horny, physically overbearing figure who comes on to the women in the group and who has a history of domestic abuse. They’d probably get into trouble for such a presentation today. But Natali wanted a movie that ignored gender and race. Speaking of which, I love the fact that the women are wearing the same boxers as the guys.
*. Natali thought of the panel designs as expressionistic, like those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Which they are, in a way. But German expressionist sets played wonky tricks with perspective and presented a distorted sense of space. Here the confined space is more abstract, less human, with the odd patterning looking a bit like a computer chip. Expressionism was an irrational space, whereas here it seems excessively formal, for all its indecipherability.

*. Another thing that interested me while listening to the commentary was Natali’s insistence that the movie ends on an optimistic note, with the message being that the “key to survival lies within you” and that we can control our fate. How so?
*. The only person to survive is the person who is so damaged he doesn’t even seem to know where he is. Natali suggests that Worth is the hero and is redeemed somewhat, but it’s hard to see what he’s atoning for since we don’t know much about who he was before he was placed in the Cube. Designing the Cube seems to have just been contract work about which he knew nothing. Is he redeemed from his cynicism and nihilism? How can that be when he chooses to effectively commit suicide because the only thing waiting for him in the outside world is “boundless human stupidity”? How is that optimistic?
*. I began by pointing out how later Game of Death films would offer some explanation of what the game was all about. Like a sadistic test set by a serial killer, as in the Saw movies, or a game show, or entertainment for the idle rich. Off the top of my head about the only other film in this genre that remains similarly obscure is Circle, though even there we’re still taken outside the game at the end. Perhaps because it was the first Game of Death movie Cube has more of an original purity to it, the ur-Game that could (and did) open up onto a host of further possibilities.
*. The essential sense of this being a game, however, still  remains. I found it interesting that Natali thought he was writing a video game at one point, and continued to see the story as structured very much like a video game. The point seems to be that life is too safe and routine in the twenty-first century, and that we want to feel tested in some extreme and unforgiving way, to discover or create some purpose in our lives. Like it or not, this is what the idea of hell has become in the popular imagination. You can go to hell and win.