by Paul Deeter
If you're a reader of the articles here, you probably at least came across my lengthy dissection of the widely successful Saw series. The series started in 2004, famously with a modest budget, basically no-names behind the screens, banking on the word-of-mouth of it's hard R rating and stars Danny Glover and Cary Elwes. The film propelled the series to 7 sequels and counting, video-game spin-offs, theme park attractions and more. I said this in the previous article and I'll say it again right now: there hasn't been a franchise like Saw, and there probably won't ever be one quite like it again. Note that I say franchise. Because despite what I said about Saw before, with it's incredible success and creativity, there were films before it that had some inspiration on various factors of the rating and intensity. Most notably is the similarities it holds with Fincher's also notorious Se7en which depicts some extreme after-effects of torture and brutality that was pretty unmatched in cinema at the time. Of course while this film held its own success and ended up being considered one of Fincher's earliest classics, there was no Se7en 2. (As funny as that title would be). It's a standalone movie with a standalone story. But in 1997, there was a film that would hold an intense R-rating with some shocking moments of violence, a humble cast and additionally a plot centered around traps and an unknown killer. This movie even had two sequels, but we'll get to that.
Cube is now considered to most as a cult classic, but at the time was not much more than a critically positive sci-fi release, making a definite profit due to its 350k budget, and receiving 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most notably the film took the "Best Canadian Feature Film" award from the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival. According to the film's wiki page, the premise is actually inspired (as most great horror and sci-fi films are) on "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" a 1961 Twilight Zone episode, which I haven't seen. Vincenzo Natali directed this as his first feature film, with inspiration coming for it as early as 1990...
...to make a film "set entirely in hell"...not until 1994, when he was working as a storyboard artist's assistant at Canada's Nelvana animation studio, [he] had completed the first script for Cube. Roommate and childhood filmmaking partner Andre Bijelic helped Natali strip the central idea – people avoiding deadly traps in a maze – down to its essence... and the identity of the victims themselves changed. In some drafts, they were accountants and in others criminals, with the implication being that their banishment to the cube was part of a penal sentence. - Berman, A.S.
The movie features it's small cast in its limited setting, with a series of seemingly endless cubes that are connected to one another by some unknown reason or pattern. Most of the cast is played by unknowns, but despite some hamminess in the writing department, the various character archetypes are well done, and they work against one another to create a really sense of claustrophobia. The movie plays with the morality of each character and their various roles in the real world as it works inside the cube and their ability to help one another through it. Notably the performance by Maurice Dean Wint, who's mostly known for voice work in other films, plays Quentin as a morally troubled character who seems to lose control with other characters while trying to play the hero. He's quietly angry throughout the whole film, constantly engaging in altercations with everyone else. He also seems to be the leader of the group, with his duty as police officer in real life affecting his uncontrolled level of authority in the group. He's less of a team player, and more of a dictator, literally being called a Nazi by another character in one of the movie's tenser altercations. He slowly becomes more and more unhinged as the film progresses, and more dangerous.
The other characters in the movie also become dangerous to themselves and others, due to their own flaws and fears. As the film went through the motions creatively, with the writing team figuring it out which character types work best with another, the film's philosophy and underlying themes became more present. There comes the various ideas of what the cube is, with some of the characters believing they are truly in Hell. Some of them think they deserve to suffer while others feel superiority over the others. One of them is even involved as we learn in the construction of the cube itself, as we learn his quiet arrogance hides the guilt of feeling responsible for everyone's entrapment. The film doesn't really try to dissect what the cube truly is made for, with it's worth (being discussed by a character literally named Worth), ambiguously referred to as a project of some "shadow government". A experiment in human perseverance maybe? A true punishment? What also comes into play is that the cube is not just mechanically ambiguous, but it follows rules. A trap that follows rules can be beat.
The fictional Cube device in the film was conceived by mathematician David W. Pravica, who also served as the film's math consultant. It consists of an outer cubical shell (the sarcophagus) and the inner cube.
The film's concept works only as well as the intelligence behind it, and the consultation from Pravica propels the film into the territory of a mathematical feat as well as a psychological one. In the Saw films, outside of the psychological implication of one's Hell existing in the room or trap they're stuck in, there isn't much greater of a solution to the traps then causing their own pain. Self-harm for escape, basically. The outlier to this series is Saw II which puts a group through the paces, with the film's puzzles existing in a house of traps. This one follows the pacing of Cube a little more closely, putting teamwork into practice rather than having everyone suffer alone. Even here, each team member must respond to their assigned puzzles, but the house acts as one big booby trap for the team as a whole. However, unlike Cube, this Saw entry doesn't distinguish the setting as anything more than a house, and there's no deeper mathematical play to uncover in order to escape.
Just like some of the best jokes in Futurama, the minds behind Cube help push the concept beyond just a gimmick film. While Futurama is pretty much audience-proof, it hides some of its most complex jokes in algorithms in the background on chalk-boards or deep references to scientific theorems. As the methods of cracking the code to the Cube are well mathematically plotted out, the allegory for Hell and the philosophy behind each character (literally each named after a real-world prison) also work in the film's favor. Which it needs, given the film's faults, including it's no-name cast. Buried takes advantage of it small setting with simple-plotting and the work of its lead actor, Ryan Reynolds. Unfortunately, despite the lead performance and some solid moments from the cast, nobody truly stands out here. Ryan Reynolds was and is a star, and he gave the film the attention it needed in press before he wow'd audiences.
Was the lack of A-list talent part of the issue in the lasting power of Cube? I'd argue that for sure, but would also point out that the movie's concept also out-does its conclusion. Sure it's enough to see the characters come apart and fight one another, and its always a nice touch to explore each character and their strengths on top of their weaknesses. This is a teamwork kind of movie, while also being a movie about how easy it is for humans to fall apart when pushed to their limits. It works well until we can imagine, when violence and depravity takes over. It's maybe not as smart as it could be, and it shows its cards just a half an hour too early. The running time is a lean 90-minutes though. This keeps things working nice and tight, with no filler. Additionally, this film was only a cult hit, with lukewarm overall reviews. The lasting power of its cult status did lead into two sequels, but the overall failure of both straight to disc films did not help in favor for Cube's legacy.
Some of the most influential movies lie in the shadow of the film's they end up inspiring. With Saw being the hit it was, it still is looked back upon as a post 2000's horror classic. It's a shame that seven years earlier a film that would go on to be a cult classic would still fall into overall obscurity. I see the occasional mention for it, and did end up stumbling upon it on my search to watch a horror movie the other night. While I do understand it exists as a flawed project, it's truly a feat to pull off a concept so original. And while it may seem like it's days are passed, there is a remake in the works. Perhaps Cube (1997) will see its way back into the spotlight. Or maybe it will inspire the next big franchise, like so many underrated films have done in the past.