Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Cube (1997) is one of those films I caught airing late at night on television before tracking down a copy on DVD. It’s a small Canadian movie with only one, maybe two, sets. A typical horror film where a bunch of strangers argue and fight and die in horrible ways. It’s also left a huge impression. It’s the kind of film that haunts viewers. What would you do if you woke up inside a death trap? The titular cube is an inscrutable maze constructed out of a series of interconnected rooms. Each room is a cube with a door in the center of each side. Handholds decorate all the surfaces and the only occasional changes in the colour of the lighting differentiate the rooms. A great number of the rooms contain hidden lethal traps waiting to be triggered. It’s impossible to tell which rooms are safe before going in. Six strangers wake up in inside the Cube, find one another, and struggle together to escape.
The audience is introduced to the Cube with extreme close-ups of a man waking up from a haze. Alderson is the name printed on his one-size fits all drab grey uniform and you might recognize the gaunt face of Julian Richings from his guest appearances as Death on television’s Supernatural. The freshly minted prisoner opens the hatches and climbs through one at random, entering a similar room, before being literally cubed by a mechanism which folds back into the walls after killing him. Alderson is the sacrificial lamb for the viewers which serves to set up the deadly and seemingly unavoidable stakes of the Cube.
In a different room five new strangers come together in rapid succession. Worth (David Hewlitt [Dr. Mckay on Stargate: Atlantis]) is lying passed out when Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), freshly bloodied, climbs through the floor hatch and rouses him. They are joined by Holloway (Nicky Guadagni) who shrinks into the corner after being ambushed at the hatch by Quentin. She’s followed by Leaven (Nicole de Boer [Ezria Dax on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]) who drops and cracks her glasses. The group’s dynamic is in its infancy here with Quentin’s “I’m a cop!” attempts to seize control frustrated by Holloway’s conspiracy-fueled anti-authoritarian tendencies and Worth’s sarcastic nihilistic detachment. A man named Rennes (Wayne Robson) descends from the ceiling and immediately demonstrates his expertise. A career criminal nicknamed “The Wren” he brings his world-famous experience with prison breaks to the group. He’s hip to the motion sensors in the walls and believes they’re all being watched by hidden wardens. Rennes teaches them to throw their boots into untested rooms to find traps. He instructs the group to suck on their buttons to keep feelings of dehydration at bay. He tips the group off to the electrochemical sensors which are only triggered by living beings. He also gets his face melted off by an acidic spray from one of the walls by a trap with an unknown trigger. Rennes offered the group the slim hope that if they followed him, he would lead them out in exchange for their boots. Unfortunately like Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea (1999) his pep-talk is immediately followed by his death at the hands of the thing he promised to defeat.
Left in the lurch by the loss of Rennes the group struggles to rally. As an attempt to make sense of their situation, the group members discuss their respective backgrounds hoping to find a common connection. Holloway is a doctor in a free clinic. Leaven is a student. Quentin has two kids and an ex-wife. Worth is a nobody pencil-pusher. While Leaven and Worth are seemingly paralyzed by this kafkaesque nightmare, Quentin and Holloway strive to assign purpose and meaning to their tribulations. Holloway believes the Cube is the immoral product of the Military-Industrial Complex whereas Quentin assumes it’s the psychotic entertainment of a twisted billionaire. The senselessness and unknowability of the Cube is one of the film’s main conceits. Any real answer could never compare the ravings of the imagination. The frustration of being trapped inside its claustrophobic 14 feet walls without knowing why is shared by the viewers who also ache for answers. Perhaps a point of contention for some audience members, it’s also one of the chief reasons this film has become an enduring cult classic for so many.
Small plaques are bolted in the tunnels between rooms. On each of these plaques is a series of three numbers. Leaven is the one who first notices these numbers but Quentin is the one who forces her to make sense of them. The earlier discussion about their past revealed many of them had accessories like rings and necklaces on top of the clothes they wore yet only Leaven was allowed to keep an accessory: her reading glasses. Leaven is revealed to be somewhat of a mathematical prodigy and after re-examining the numbers she deduces that all of the rooms labelled with at least one prime number contained traps. The group endeavors to travel in as straight a line as possible until they reach the edge, relying on Leaven to avoid the traps. This is a big shift in dynamics for the group. Leaven was seemingly at her wits end moments before and now she’s the group’s most crucial member. The group is also joined by their final member, a mentally handicapped man named Kazan (Andrew Miller). Kazan is immediately distressed by being in a “red” room and is also unwilling to climb up to the ceiling hatches, limiting the group’s options. Ultimately, Kazan drives a wedge between Quentin and the rest of the group. Quentin is unreasonably upset by Kazan’s presence and suggests abandoning him on several occasions.
Soon, Leaven’s system fails and Quentin is nearly caught in a trap. Unlike the grating that sliced Alderson, the acid that felled Rennes, or the jets of fire which melted Rennes’ boot, this trap is a cage of nearly invisible wires which Quentin leaps out of at the last minute leaving him with a gash in his leg. Quentin starts to unravel at this point. He begins lashing out and behaving erratically. In the director’s own words Quentin reveals “totalitarian tendencies”. Holloway even calls him a fascist. Worth’s refusal to play along with Quentin’s demands finally nets him a confrontation in which it is revealed that Worth was hired as an architect to design the Cube’s outer shell. Worth spent months at his day job designing the outer structure of the Cube without knowing for what it was intended. He did eventually discover the nature of the beast and, much to everyone’s horror, provides his own conclusions as a counter to Holloway and Quentin’s ideas. What Worth was able to dig up about the Cube led him to believe that it is a purposeless and leaderless bureaucratic black hole being sustained only by legions of working stiffs like him. The only reason people are even being tossed into the Cube is to circularly justify its existence in a blackly comic attempt to cover up its own pointlessness. The film’s heroes are little more than ritual sacrifice to government and corporate incompetence. Worth’s secret proves useful, however, because Leaven is able to deduce the number of rooms (no more than 26x26x26) inside the Cube from the dimensions of the shell. From there she posits that the numbers on the plaques are cartesian coordinates and the group decides to continue plotting a course for the edge.
The team eventually comes across a room surrounded by traps. They deduce that the outer shell is protected by a ring of traps. Refusing to backtrack, the team decides to traverse through a room with a sound-activated trap. Kazan, second to last, gets his pant leg stuck on the floor hatch’s handle but makes it through without summoning the legion of extending spikes. Even knowing how this scene plays out, it is a magnificent exercise in tension. The movements are painstaking and nerve-wracking and played without musical accompaniment.Quentin finally makes his way through a series of mishaps nearly doom him before Kazan exclaims in relief, activating the spikes and forcing Quentin to leap through the portal or suffer hundreds of skewers. Start to finish “Be Quiet” is perhaps this cult classic’s highlight.
A gap exists between the outer shell and the rooms. A dark abyss extending in all directions. Faced with this fulfillment of Worth’s prediction “There is no way out!” the team again succumbs to infighting and despair. Holloway, now thoroughly disabused of her grand conspiracies, hashes it out with Quentin over his increasingly tyrannical leadership. The group next decides to tie their jackets and pants together and lower someone down the outer edge of rooms to take a look. It’s a pretty futile effort. There is no bottom visible and the hatch’s seemingly cannot be opened from the outside. Quentin and Leaven both volunteer, each objecting to the other. Quentin is too heavy, Leaven is too important. Holloway, the second lightest, settles the argument by volunteering herself. The deep background rumbling that periodically shakes the Cube occurs once again and causes Holloway to slip and fall. She climbs her way back up with Quentin’s help but he looks her dead in the eyes and drops her to her death. He tells the rest of the group that she slipped.
The final secret of the Cube is that the rooms move. This is the explanation given for the deep rumbling and occasional shaking. While once again journeying across the Cube, Quentin absconds with Leaven while the group is sleeping and attempts to convince her to abandon Worth and Kazan. His advance is psychotic and ludicrous. The ravings of a madman struggling to ascribe meaning to the meaningless. Worth intervenes and is savagely beaten for his efforts. Quentin forces him through an unchecked portal, essentially an attempted murder, but Worth bursts into hysterics at an unexpected discovery: Rennes’ corpse. Realizing it’s impossible for them to have travelled in a loop is what leads Leaven to realize that the rooms move. This final piece of the puzzle allows her to make a number of mathematical deductions. The numbers are the starting positions and the rooms move through predetermined coordinates which can be calculated from their initial coordinates. Furthermore, the rooms with traps are labelled by whether or not their coordinates can be factored in powers of prime. Further still, Kazan is an idiot-savant capable of performing the required calculations instantly in exchange for gumdrops (or the promise of gumdrops). Leaven uses all of this information to plot a course for the start room which will connect them to the “bridge room” whose starting coordinates place it outside the Cube between the rooms and the entrance.
On their way to freedom the group abandons an unhinged Quentin. Together the final trio overcome a series of obstacles before finally making it to the bridge. They open the hatch and are bathed in a blinding white light. Worth, battered and bruised, is still as nihilistic as ever and doesn’t believe there’s much out there for him. On the other hand Leaven is thoroughly looking forward to escaping the Cube and living her life. Of course, she’s suddenly pierced through by Quentin with a handle broken off from one of the hatches. Quentin dispatches Worth as well and tries to stop Kazan from crawling through the tunnel to freedom. Unfortunately for Quentin he is held back by a dying Worth. As the bridge room cycles back into the Cube it leaves a red smear, all that is left of Quentin, on the outer shell. Kazan shuffles through the pure white light into the unknown.
Cube was (co-) written and directed by Vincenzo Natali as his first feature-length project. While there are many fine directors who can spin gold from the screenplays of others, there is always something more intimate about the works of writer-directors. Add to that the tiny set, the short production schedule, and the small circle of friends involved and Cube becomes something special indeed. The film is much more human than its desolate industrial landscape suggests. The Cube is said to be oppressively hot, attributed to a lack of ventilation, and this is surely drawn from the on-set reality. Hot studio lights are responsible for the Cube’s glowing panels and the actors are asked to clamber around uncomfortable and hastily built walls. Natali may have failed to shoot the movie in order like he intended, and the story’s mathematical conceits may be a bit beyond him, but he’s nevertheless succeeded in crafting a film that is very much ahead of its time visually and thematically. It boasts at least two special-effects firsts. The scene of Holloway falling to her death briefly employs a digital model of the actress, a feat they accomplished before Titanic (1997), and the practical effect of Alderson getting cut into bits handily predates Resident Evil (2002).
Cube remains a haunting film. Few can lay claim to having seen it in ‘97 when it premiered and won the almost comically specific Toronto International Film Festival Award for Best Canadian First Feature Film. But like the prisoners of the titular Cube genre and horror fans found themselves drawn to the picture. Whether it’s the atmosphere of Cube, the directing, a favorite actor, a particular scene or effect, even the simplicity and elegance of the idea behind it, something has caused many of us to remain trapped within. The Cube offers us no quarter and no answers. For a bunch of punk kids in 1997 maybe that was a kind of escapism. For a bunch of adults 20 years later maybe it’s a painful allegory. Perhaps the most enduring lesson and feature of the Cube is that it plays fair. It provides all the information needed to solve its puzzle and it never cheats. It’s the people inside you have to watch out for.