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Revisiting CUBE 20 Years Later

We go to sleep every night expecting to awaken in the same bed, in the same home, the next day.

But what if we didn’t.

Instead you awaken in a cold, unfeeling, industrialized hell filled with deadly traps, an unbearable void, and worse yet… other people.

This is the basic premise of CUBE, the 1997 psychological sci-fi horror movie that made way for Canadian director and writer Vincenzo Natali. But before going into the inner workings of the film and franchise, we have to go back to the blueprints. Natali had written the script for CUBE, seemingly inspired by the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit.” He was looking to direct a minimalist film with a small cast but a big mystery.

In order to raise the interest and funds for the project, Natali created a twenty-minute long short movie titled ELEVATED in 1996. The proof of concept film follows Ellen and Ben, two workers in an office building heading out via elevator when a panicked security guard named Hank rushes inside, locking the lift and claiming that a horrible monster is on the loose in the office and slaughtering everyone! Tensions run high as Ellen and Ben have doubts about Hank’s claims, and the pressure builds in the tiny confines of the elevator. The short was lauded and managed to get the interest and investments needed to finance CUBE as a whole.

With pre-production in motion, Natali created the CUBE set on a soundstage. Utilizing a single ‘Cube Room’ in order to create the illusion of an endless maze of identical cubes,changing out the colored paneling to differentiate between various scenes.

CUBE opens with a bald man (featured prominently in the poster and marketing of the film) only credited as ‘Alderson’. He awakens alone in a cold, industrial cube with doors on each of the four walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Wandering through one such door, he emerges into another identical room, and flinches before literally falling to a pile of bloody pieces, a deadly razor mesh curling back after eviscerating the prisoner. The game begins.

We then meet the core group of prisoners as they stir from their own sleep. The heroic, but aggressive cop Quentin, the French master escape artist Rennes “The Wren”, the cynical architect David Worth (played by David Hewlet), the anxious conspiracy theorist and free clinic doctor Helen Holloway, and the young mathematics student Joan Leaven. All have no idea how they ended up together, and they’re not sure how to get out, surrounded by an endless maze of identical cube rooms. With no food or water, they have mere days before they dehydrate and starve to death and even less before their bodies weaken and atrophy. Along the way, they find an autistic man named Kazan who at first seems a hindrance, but proves useful in his own way. The path is covered in dangerous traps, from flamethrowers to acid. But as they crawl their way through the angular depths of their mechanized prison/executioner, fears and emotions flare, and their greatest threat becomes one another.

The story is filled with all manner of existential, psychological, and numerical themes, the main focus of which being why they are locked inside the Cube, who built it, and for what purpose? Holloway is quick to call it a conspiracy from the government, thinking her anti-authoritarian life has landed her there. Quentin shoots her theory down, saying that those in the ‘military industrial complex’ just want to make a lot of money and buy boats, not build elaborate death traps for no-name dissidents. He thinks it could be some rich psychopath’s form of fun. Even extraterrestrials are brought up as a possible reason.

Rennes reins the others in, thinking if they continue waxing idly they will lose focus on escaping. Worth ends up providing a more grounded theory, after the revelation that he may have built the outer shell of the Cube for an unknown, conglomerate organization. Simply, the Cube is a mutated project that went utterly off the rails with no one to stop it. It was built, but has no purpose except to exist in the absence of any true meaning. Holloway finds this nihilistic possibility even more terrifying than any diabolical government plot, the idea of a massive governmental, corporate, or industrial bureaucracy birthing such an abomination through sheer ignorance, fear, and confusion.

Each character’s name also comes from the name of a prison. Quentin gets his name from San Quentin State Prison, which at the time was notorious for violent inmates. Rennes was named after the Rennes Penitentiary in France, and one of the oldest still in operation, tying into him being an old-timer prison escape artist. Their names reflect their personality, and how those flaws and weaknesses in part keep them truly imprisoned. The inmates use their combined skills and knowledge to try and navigate the Cube, discovering each room is labeled numerically with prime numbers. Mathematician Leaven proves her abilities in attempts to mathematically navigate the super-structure, only to learn that it’s far, far more complicated than that. CUBE is certainly a horror for those rusty on their math skills…

The film had a modest box office success globally, kickstarting Vincenzo Natali’s career. CUBE even garnering a sequel and a prequel without Natali’s involvement, CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE, and CUBE ZERO. But neither can hold up to the sheer existential horror and despair of the original. The main reason for the rest of the series lacks the same edge is their attempts to build a larger mythology and an explanation for the existence of the Cube out of the crushing ambiguity that made the first film so mysterious and intriguing.

CUBE still holds up quite well thanks to the ontological mystery, interesting characters, and nightmarish death traps. Yet, through it all, there’s a glimmer of hope as our prisoners navigate a bureaucratic nightmare rendered in steel, looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.

CUBE is available on DVD and various online streaming rental services.

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