Famously shot on a single set with a student-film budget, Canadian director Vincenzo Natali‘s 1997 debut “Cube” blends a strong, “Twilight Zone” style sci-fi concept with surprising flashes of horror and proves once again that with a single, smart idea, strong script and a little filmmaking magic you can create a classic regardless of resources. A tale of claustrophobia and paranoia with a icy vein of Kafka-esque dread running throughout, “Cube’s” “Sci-Fi” concept acts more as a framing device to move these characters from one nightmarish scenario to the next, rather than the meat of the story, which is driven by the unravelling relationships of our captives more so than a monstrous external threat or whiz-bang special effects, so don’t expect another Event Horizon or Alien when we say “Sci-Fi Horror”. “Cube“, originally imagined by Natali in the early 1990’s as “A Story Set In Hell”, slowly evolved from a more traditional “Escape The Monster” tale of early drafts with the help of roommate and childhood filmmaking partner Andre Bijelic, who helped Natali strip the central idea – people avoiding deadly traps in a maze – down to its most economical, and effective, essence.
The story is simple: After a man named Alderson (Our favourite Canadian character Actor Julian Richings, from The Witch and Urban Legend, in a grisly cameo) is killed in a mysterious cube-shaped room, five strangers – Disgraced cop Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), Awkward office worker Worth (Pin’s David Hewlett), Holloway, a paranoid doctor, the bookish nerd Leaven (Nicole de Boer from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”), and Rennes, a prison escape artist, – awaken and meet in another seemingly identical room. No one knows where they are, how long they’ve been there or how they got there. Each room has doors on every surface, and, as there’s no food or water to be found, the group desperately sets off to find their way out.
Quentin tells the group that some rooms contain traps, which he’s discovered while exploring. The maze is beset by frequent tremors, and Leaven notices numbers inscribed in the narrow passageways between rooms. As the rooms become increasingly dangerous and their journey more and more surreal, the tenuous bonds between characters, and their own sanity, break down, creating a tense cat-and-mouse game between the captives that plays out to tragic results. It’s in the endless surprises that Natali keeps coming that “Cube” has earned it’s cult status, so if you’re one of the few who’ve not seen this Canadian classic, we’ll spare you the spoilers to allow maximum impact.
Questions of philosophy and existential matters are on touched on in the dialogue, and its obvious to read some pretty heavy-handed allegory into “Cube“, but the film never gets too far up it’s own ass in film-student philosophizing, keeping the pacing tight and the danger of the maze ever present. Working with an actual Mathematician, Natali’s unique maze design manages to be simultaneously surreal and anchored in technical possibility, adding to the terror we feel as the walls literally close in around them. Cinematographer Derek Rogers developed strategies for shooting in the tightly confined spaces of the 14×14 ft. set that keep us consistency engaged with the actors and the action at hand, and paired with an early, very solid score from composer Mark Korven, (best known for his work on “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” with Robert Eggers), Natali’s managed to make a compelling, concise thriller that stands amongst the best in Sci-Fi Horror. A marvel in filmmaking cleverness, “Cube” won the award for Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival and the Jury Award at the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, establishing Natale’s voice as a genre Director and paving the way for future work like “Splice” and the more recent Stephen King adaptation “In The Tall Grass”.