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.

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