We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Bottom Line: This one delivers a claustrophobic and tense psychological horror / sci fi film with Orwellian overtones.
Cube is a quirky little sci fi/horror film that writer/director Vincenzo Natali (Splice) delivered to us back in 1997 as his feature-length directorial debut. It focuses on a group of people who find themselves trapped in a strange prison that consists of multiple, interlinked cube-shaped rooms. They discover that some of the rooms have traps (like a razor-thin wire grate that will slice the unsuspecting wanderer into pieces) while others offer safe passage. None of the abductees know each other and none know how they arrived in this bizarre maze, though ultimately they determine that each serves a purpose in this maniacal exercise controlled by hidden forces. They decide that they must work together to succeed in escaping from their unjust incarceration and they start to find clues that help them determine whether a room is safe or trapped. But because of their personality conflicts and mutual mistrust, the group begins to crumble from within before they can achieve their goal of escape.
Canadian director Natali managed to pull together this film–which he claims was inspired by the episode from the original Twilight Zone television series “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”–for about half a million dollars. And he made the most with his money by creating a creepy, claustrophobic, paranoia-drenched film following a small group of frantic people trying to understand their seemingly unmerited predicament. And he managed to maneuver past the expected pitfall of trying to make these people symbolic or representative of society in general. Instead, he created very real, believable characters, and each with apparently some function in this demented “game”. He did add one element, though, and that was a sense of guilt that each person felt for something they had done in the past. This leads each of them to initially wonder, either overtly or subconsciously, if their past sins somehow led to their imprisonment. This also emphasizes that each of these people are not perfect, thus making them more human, and as we see their more sordid nature reveal itself as the film progress, the viewer almost wonders if they deserve their fate. But not to the point that we stop routing for them. We always want to see the abductees escape from this prison, even if our feelings shift throughout the film as to which ones truly deserve to go free.
Natali sets up a Kafkaesque, Orwellian setting that immediately draws in the viewer and establishes a mood of tension and trepidation that carries the film to its bittersweet conclusion. And this is truly a horror film, though with science fiction trappings, because of the threat from the traps throughout the maze as well as that unknown presence that must be controlling things from afar (the Saw film series would later follow a similar pattern, though with a much more exploitative bent emphasizing torture and gore). And the fact that Cube never answers some of the the main questions viewers may be asking (though some hints seep through) gives the film that added dimension of despondency. Had this movie come out of the Hollywood machine, it would have never been allowed to go forward with its ambiguous conclusion. But since Natali did this as an indie, he had the creative control to follow that path, making this a much stronger film. And while the film plays out as a B-Movie and the actors sometimes fall short of the emotional range required of them, it still manages to stand out as a first rate B-Movie along the lines of other successful films in this milieu such as the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and They Live.
Cube had only a limited release in the theaters Stateside, but it quickly caught on as a cult film and had a successful run when it hit the home video market. It has even spawned two follow-up films, the sequel Cube 2: Hypercube which delivered a better than expected continuation of the formula, and the prequel Cube Zero, which delves into the backstory of the Cube. But the original film is the one that captured the imaginations of science fiction and horror fans alike and gave us a must-see, genre-crossing psychological thriller.
Buy Cube on Blu-ray and DVD: