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A Paternity Leave Review of "Cube" (1997)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Cube is a fascinating low-budget thriller with just enough hints of science-fiction and horror to attract nerds everywhere.  There are a few missteps, but the director, Vincenzo Natali, managed to wring the most he possibly could out of such a basic premise through perfectly timed reveals, deaths, and character turns.  The result?  Almost twenty years later, it remains one of the best and most tense confined space movies I've ever seen.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Part Where I Trash Talk a Discontinued Podcast

Did anybody reading this ever listen to the "Yeah, It's That Bad" podcast?  It was... interesting.

On the one hand, I don't want to criticize it too much.  For one thing, it's no longer running, so what's the point of hating on it?  But for another, the guys who put the show together were just a couple of average dudes.  They weren't film critics or scholars or comedians.  They made a podcast about movies simply because it gave them something to talk about for about an hour each week.  Complaining about that just feels like your bitching about a couple of kids talking too loud in the food court.

On the other hand... they weren't film critics or scholars or comedians, so their opinions always felt somehow uninformed.  Not to say that their opinions were invalid, but it felt so frustrating to hear them make a statement and then move on without giving more detail or backup to their point.

Anyway.  The only reason I'm bringing up YITB is because one of their last episodes was about the movie Cube.  The guys generally hated it, going so far as to say that the movie had some of the worst acting they'd ever seen and that the plot was nonsensical.  At the time, I just kinda shrugged and moved on, but then I looked it up online:

Cube does not seem to be terribly well-loved in critical circles.  An average 3 / 5 rating isn't bad, necessarily, but it's worse than the movie deserves.  And since I run a blog and I'm more than capable of spreading a bit of love for a movie that I enjoy, why not ramble for a thousand words or so?

YITB was wrong.  Cube is a good movie.  Y'all should check it out.

Now I'll Summarize the Plot

It's pretty simple.  Six strangers wake up in a bizarre dungeon made up of interlocking cube-shaped rooms.  Nobody knows why they're in the cube or how to get out, but once they start trying to escape, they find out that certain rooms have deadly traps inside.

That's... pretty much it.  Obviously there's more to the movie overall, but the plot itself is pretty thin.  And that's to it's benefit:  Cube is at its best when inexplicable, horrible things pop up out of nowhere and terrify the characters.  It's a tense movie about paranoia and uncertainty, and that's really all you need to know.

That and it has some of the best set design you'll ever see.  They manage to get a shot at every possible angle you can in a single room and it always looks fantastic.

Here's the Part Where I Defend the Acting

A common criticism of this movie (which, predictably, came up in the YITB episode) is that the acting and dialogue are weak.  I can't totally defend the dialogue - some lines, like the "Holy cats!" outburst, are just inexcusable.  But it's unfair to beat up on the actors.

All the actors did a fine job.  It's easy to sneer at low budget film acting because actors don't get the benefit of top-of-the-line post-production, and sometimes a good performance can get lost when the director and editor are both still learning the ropes.  But this is good acting.  Even if it's not excellent, it's still good.  It's totally fine, you guys.

I guess I have a bit of an ax to grind on this point.  Acting is one of those subjective things that people are going to interpret differently.  While there are certain performances that are virtually undeniably great - like everybody in The Godfather - and while there are certain performances that are virtually undeniably awful - like everybody in the Star Wars prequels - there's a massive grey area in between.

The way I look at it is simply this: if I can understand what a character's motivation and current emotional state is, then the acting is at least serviceable.  If I can go a step further and empathize with the characters, then the acting is good.  If I am completely immersed, then the acting is great.

But bad acting?  My God, that's a whole other beast.  Calling somebody a bad actor is a deep insult.  You're saying that a performance hasn't even achieved baseline competence.  I've seen bad acting before, guys.  I've seen performances that make me laugh when they're supposed to make me cry and vice versa.  I've seen performances that I'm not convinced were actually acted by human beings.

If you're just going to start throwing the word "bad" at any random role that didn't totally sweep you off your feet, then you've set your standards way too fucking high.  Trust me on this: Cube does not have bad acting.  Even if it's not your thing, even if you think it's too theatrical, it is - at worst - average.

Don't believe me?  Try Bangkok Revenge and shut the fuck up.

The Part Where I Explain Away the Non-Explained Premise

Cube is one of the first movies I ever saw that had a completely ambiguous premise.  You don't ever find out exactly why the Cube exists, why the characters were imprisoned in it, what happens if you get out, where it is, etc.  Naturally, when I first saw this as a thirteen year old, my instinct was to be snotty about the ambiguity and act like you can't explain it without ruining the movie, man.

Looking at it now, I don't think the ambiguity makes the movie inherently better or worse.  To me, it's a non-issue.  It's just how the movie was made - the filmmakers were simply more concerned with tension and characters than they were with plot.  As a viewer, you either have to accept that or you just can't really watch the movie properly.

As with any case of ambiguity, you can come up with your own conclusion as you see fit.  If you want it to be a movie about aliens who've abducted people and are putting them through some crazy experiment, then you can go right ahead and think that.  Or if you want it to be about a terrible government plot, you're more than welcome to think that, too.  Whatever floats your boat.

If you ask me, though - and of course you did, because otherwise you wouldn't be on my blog - I like the explanation that is given in the movie by Worth.  The Cube just is.  It was built by somebody - probably the government - and then it was forgotten.  But because it exists and because people put money into making it, the people who own it have to use it.  So even though there's really no good reason to keep locking victims inside, the rest of the world is going through the motions to keep it running.

It's a much more chilling horror story than the other nefarious explanations you can come up with.  When people are willing to commit evil acts "just because," then you know they are part of an irreparably broken system.  Even if you managed to get out of the Cube, there is no haven for you.

The Part Where I Write About Confined Space Movies

Tie for a mini rant: I'm going to avoid using the term "bottle plot" or "bottle movie."  I get why that term exists, but I hate it.  It's a sneering, dismissive way to describe a premise.  It makes me think of somebody describing a painting as a "picture" or calling a novel a "storybook."  I'm calling the whole genre "confined space" instead.

So.  Confined space movies.  They're a go-to premise for low budget filmmakers - and for good reason.  One or just a few set(s) brings production costs and scheduling troubles way down, so it's a natural solution.  I mentioned before that it seems like making one is a rite of passage in the land of film; every director seems to give it a shot at one point or another.

The problem is that many confined space movies end up sucking.  Every writer in the world seems to think that if you take six people and shove 'em in a box for a couple of days, they'll end up murdering each other and writing creepy phrases on the walls in blood.  Virtually every premise hinges on the idea that the characters' tensions will rise and lead to mayhem, and I guess I'm okay with that since otherwise you don't have a movie.

But let's be realistic.  How long will that transformation actually take?

People start murdering each in like, what, six hours in The Steam Experiment?  It's like three hours in ATM?  Probably the worst is Elevator, which doesn't necessarily lead to full-on murder, but the characters completely go hysterical after maybe ninety minutes and a bomb scare.  (Okay, okay... I guess being trapped in an elevator with a ticking bomb might stress you out, but you don't have to be a dick about it.)

My point is that most of these movies end up falling apart because it just doesn't feel believable that human beings would descend into savagery so soon.  You can be cynical about people all you want, but the facts don't agree with you.  In a crisis, people are much more likely to come together than they are to start killing.  It's only after prolonged conditions that our shittiness starts to emerge.

And that's why I really enjoy Cube.  First of all, the ordeal the characters go through is way more intense than what you see in most confined space movies: they're sleep-deprived, starved, lost, confused, weary from physical exhaustion, and surrounded by death traps.  And yet, even through all of this, it still takes more than a measly six hours before anybody gets truly hysterical.

Plus, Cube gets a bonus because not everyone completely flips.  Really, it's just one guy who can't keep it together and the others are reacting to him.

Even more of a bonus:  his turn happens because of a pre-existing character flaw.  The villain enjoys having control over a situation and he has been deprived of that control for too long.  That is what makes him completely crumble into evil.  In fact, it's implied that he's probably just as bad outside of the Cube as he is in.  Being able to make decisions about who lives and who dies is the only power he has left.  It's a totally natural progression of his character even as the rest of the cast still tries to work together to escape.  I totally buy into it, and as a result, I totally buy into the rising tension it produces.

Or, to put it in other words, a movie about an enormous torture dungeon filled with crazy traps and constantly-shifting rooms ends up being a more believable story than a movie about nine assholes who get stuck in an elevator on New Year's Eve.

The Bit About the Sequels

I really just wanted to talk a bit about Cube today.  It's one of my favorite independent movies.  The scene with the "silence" room gets me every time, the moment where Worth seems to finally get some motivation only to have it completely ripped away from him always breaks my heart, and I always think Kazan might not make it.  There's just so much great stuff in this one.

Fortunately, enough people like me must have caught this one on SyFy (back when it was Sci-Fi) and fell in love with it, too, because Cube has since grown into a healthy and thriving cult movie.  Like Ravenous from earlier this month, it is a small movie that didn't really get the attention it deserved when it first came out, but it has grown by leaps and bounds ever since.

Unfortunately, somebody thought it would be a good idea to turn the premise into a franchise.  And thus was born Hypercube, one of the worst sequels ever made.  I try to stay positive around these parts, so I'm not going to go into that one too much.  Suffice to say that it manages to fail on almost every possible level.

The main problem, of course, is that Cube doesn't really merit a sequel or a spin-off.  It's a strange movie about six people trapped in cube dungeon.  What do you do next?  Six different people get trapped in a dungeon?  Well, apparently the guys behind Hypercube thought that was ridiculous... so they put twelve strangers into a cube.  Bam!  Twice the terror, right?

Cube is a singular experience, despite the fact that it's basic premise (sans the dungeon) has been oft-filmed.  I cannot recommend that you check out either of its sequels, but I will say this: if you just have to watch, go straight for the third one, Cube Zero.  It's still not a great movie, but it at least tries to do something innovative rather than just having another goddamn cube.

Or... buy a copy of Cube and watch it again.  That works, too.