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Cube (1997)

by on 2010/07/09

may (or may not) be an existentialist work masquerading as nihilism. Or is it the other way around? The film’s official tagline tells us “Don’t look for a reason . . . look for a way out” so perhaps the progress is more important than the purpose.

It’s not a pleasant progression. Intriguing? Yes. Entertaining? Sure. Pleasant? Not a chance.

It’s particularly unpleasant for the unfortunate seven characters damned to confinement in the titular structure: Alderson, Holloway, Leaven, Quentin, Rennes, Worth, and Kazan. Enigma, doctor, student, cop, convict, businessman, and autistic savant.

Were they chosen for a reason? Are they guilty of some crime? Are they being punished? Are they dead? Is the Cube even real? The film doesn’t solve such questions; it may not have any answers. Maybe the answers are “maybe”. The filmmakers shouldn’t expect us not to ask. Cube is, after all, a small-scale project with “low-budget cult film” stamped all over it, a locked room murder mystery of sorts, granted its only scope by the ideas of inquiry.

If the Cube were built simply to kill its prisoners, why supply them with clues? Conversely, starting each victim in their own room without the means to (independently) understand those clues subverts that entire scheme. Which is why I had some initial misgivings. The action began like an uncharitable video game, the kind where you must necessarily die in order to learn how not to die. At least in most games the player can restart from an earlier position. In this movie, however, the first attempt is often the final exit. Punishment, thy name is Cube . . .

Stretch a Twilight Zone episode to feature length.

Maximize the utility of a single Star Trek set.

Let slip more hamminess than Dave Foley in a train car.

And yet…

As the movie continued I managed to look past its limitations. I welcomed each new twist in much the same way I did the mental somersaults of Timecrimes, the decoding of the primer in Contact, and the evolving relationships of Identity.

There were other surprises too, not directly related to such clockwork contrivances. In a standout performance, Wayne Robson, who plays the recurring character of Mike Hamar on Red Green, here plays another convict, Wayne “The Wren” Rennes, known for his many successful prison breaks. Here he exudes not that familiar endearing incompetence but a kind of weary professionalism, oddly reminiscent of Richard Farnsworth in Grey Fox. (Though Farnsworth is probably better known to the world as Matthew Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables.)

Also present are other familiar faces: David Hewlett of Traders and Nicole de Boer of Star Trek Deep Space Nine and the Dead Zone TV series. Perhaps the most surprising character appearance of all, however, was Francisco Scaramanga. In one scene Quentin proposes that the Cube is like the fun house of James Bond’s nemesis in Man with the Golden Gun, a deadly labyrinth constructed solely for the amusement of an impossibly wealthy sadist.

While these are memorable strokes on a larger canvas, I do think it’s possible to find a deeper meaning in Cube, although not one that will be of any value to its characters. In due course we hear speculation that some of them may have helped create the Cube. Or perhaps they simply allowed it to happen through inaction or apathy. Nothing is certain but the message is underscored in other ways. We are all contributors — or at least indifferent — to the grand mechanisms of our self-destruction. If that subtext is intended, I’m not sure of its specific crusade. Politics? Economics? Environment? Or something else entirely? So few of our questions have been answered to this point, and now is no different. As in the Neorealism of Italian cinema, problems abound, with solutions unfound.

And that lack of an answer is indicative of my greatest issue with Cube. It’s Groundhog Day for the terminal cynic. I don’t need omniscience but — at the very least — I want to know why. Why build the Cube? Why imprison these people? Why help them . . . or kill them? The movie does a good job of showing what and how, such a good job in fact that I doubt I’ll need to rewatch it any time soon.

To see it again, I’d need a reason: Why?

* * *

Rated R for language and violence

90 minutes

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