I'm disappointed in The Cube, Vincenzo Natali's 1997 Lifeboat-by-way-of-The Twilight Zone sciffy thriller, and somewhat for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the director, cast, set designers, editors, screenwriters, or anybody else who had anything to do with this film.
My disappointment in this film is partially the fault of a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Recently, I visited the Met in Manhattan. I had specifically gone to check out Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. That's the big dead shark suspended in the tank of water.
Now even regular readers might not know this about me, but I have the innate sense of direction of a Kalahari Bushman. Unfortunately, the curators at the Met didn't store this thing in Kalahari bush. Rather, it's in an impossible until you stumble over it and it becomes obvious spot in the modern art wing and I was forced to ask directions.
The guard I asked not only told me where I could find it, but then asked if I'd seen The Cube.
I said no.
He said that he'd walk to the shark while he explained why I had to see The Cube.
I told him that I didn't want to inconvenience him.
He said it was no trouble at all.
As we walked, he asked if I was familiar with the Hirst thing with the sheep.
I asked if he meant Away from the Flock.
He said maybe. Is that the one with the dissected sheep?
Yep, I said.
Yeah. Then that one.
Apparently, the guard told me, The Cube features a scene in which a horse gets vivisected into slide sections, à la Hirst's Away from the Flock. Only the horse stays alive and it, like gallops in place and stuff. It's crazy.
I promised him I would check it out.
He took a quick step so he was a little ahead of me and turned to face me. He had a serious, driven look on his face. You need to check it out, he told me. You have to.
I promised and again and began to wonder who you call when security is beginning to freak you out.
As luck would have it, the dead shark was in a room that wasn't in his appointed guard-area and he had to stop. I thanked him and said goodbye. He said goodbye, but then just stood there. He watched me as if he expected me turn and shout out how I'd never watch The Cube. I wasn't interested in his stupid movie. And when I asked about the shark, I had known where it was all along. I was just faking it.
Dude, he shouted. You have to watch it.
I waved half-heartedly back to him. Thanks. I will. Thanks.
When I got home – concerned that the Met may somehow have my home address – I queued The Cube.
The plot of The Cube is pleasingly simple. A group of maybe not so random strangers wakes up inside a maze of cube-shaped rooms, each of which contain six doors, all of which lead to nearly identical cube shaped rooms. Running along the base of each door are three four-digit numbers in a numerical code. In some of the rooms are really nasty traps. Some quick exploration reveals that there is no food or water in the maze, giving those trapped within a practical limit of three days before their situation is resolved for them by biology. Though this only represents an outside limit of human endurance – prior to that, the maze's captives can expect to tire, lose their mental faculties, experience paranoia, and suffer other symptoms that doctors agree generally lead to the rapid escalation of dramatic tension.
Faced with a hopeless situation, our mixed bag of victims start applying Jason Shiga-grade leaps of logical daring-do to puzzle their way out of this endlessly recursive death trap. Along the way, as all good mixed victim groups must, secrets are revealed and Important Social Messages are shared before somebody plays the "Holy Crap, I've Done Gone Crazy" card.
There's one brilliantly innovative thing about The Cube: the Cube itself. Restricted-budget filmmakers should take note of how Natali's concept allowed him to shoot the whole thing on an 18-foot by 18-foot by 18-foot set – meaning he figured out how to make a cheap horror flick that wasn't another tired slasher rehash or zombie pic, both of which are to untalented novice filmmaker what patriotism is to scoundrels. And what a set it is! The mind-numbing effect of the repeated, color-coded cubes give the whole flick an almost hypnotic power.
I say almost because it ultimately isn't enough to completely overwhelm what's wrong with The Cube. In contrast to the innovation shown in the wonderfully absurd and pleasingly minimalist premise, the characters and their dialog-driven development just die (figuratively, though there are more than couple literal ones too) on-screen. I started watching this flick with my wife and she punched clock about 30 minutes in. When I asked what she didn't like, she answered that she knew how the whole thing went: The victims all hate one another more and more and they all die. She didn't need to sit through the whole running time to watch that shopworn scenario play out. While I don't feel quite so strongly about it as she did, she has a point. Though the cast is game, the characters feel predictable. In case you miss it, they're given long-winded speeches on the importance of leadership in crisis situations, the value of empathy, the need for hope and so on. For the film viewer who likes their movie watching experience to be truly hands off, characters even give spot on psychoanalytic readings of other characters. They start as types and then trace development arcs so pat and pre-programmed that, on at least one occasion, I found myself later thinking that a character had done or said something insensible, but something I missed at the time because it was the sort of thing Character Model 943-ST always does or says at that point in the movie. Where the characters do diverge from a standard template, it feels less like an outgrowth of their character and more like a necessity of the film's unique set and the unusual narrative requirements it imposes. Here, more than anywhere else, viewers can see that the only really important character on the screen is the Cube itself.
This clear prioritization of the situation over the character is not, innately, a bad idea. Oldboy's most interest stretch, the first half or so of the flick, is driven by the fact that we know everything about the character's situation, but nothing about the character. Several signature character's from the Eastwood collection exist solely for their situation without feeling clockwork. The Cube just can't make it work. Partially because the film can't decide whether it wants to be a vividly realized nightmare or a grand social statement. It might be possible to be both (I doubt it, but I grant the possibility), but that remains a firmly hypothetical statement.
The unsatisfying lack of explanation regarding the Cube similarly reinforces the feeling that you've got a set in search of a story. In the parlance of amateur film critics, the Cube doesn't give viewers all the answers. What's not so great is that it does give viewers plenty of them, just none of the answers that would improve your viewing experience. For instance, everything you need to know about the characters is handed to you on a silver platter. But, every possible answer about the Cube – the real star – is half-baked and ultimately unsatisfying in frustrating, rather than apatite whetting, way. There are some mysteries that don't have answers, but there are other mysteries that simply don't have any logic. The former can be absurdity or depth. The latter is creative laziness or sloppy thinking. The Cube is firmly the latter. The answer to the Cube's reason for being is the movie itself: Somebody came up with a superneato death trap that was just too spiffy not to put people in. The Cube does have perhaps the most honest tagline in all of film history: "Don't look for a reason. Look for a way out." If I may be so bold, I'll go them one further and suggest you avoid finding a way in.
You know what else the movie lacks?
You've probably figured it out by now.
There's no freakin' Hirst vivisected horsey. It was a lie. A terrible, bold-faced, big-ol', pants en fuego, heartlessly cruel lie.
I'll never trust the guards at the Met again.