One of my favorite filmmaking stories centers around the production for the movie Saw. Director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell had five thousand dollars to make a movie, but no idea what to make. With such a small sum, they kind of threw their arms up and were like, “Guess it’s a movie about two guys in a room.” After shooting began, executives saw they had something and added money to that microscopic budget and produced the first in what would become one of the more lucrative horror franchises in recent memory. As the budgets got bigger and the sequel numbers higher, the movies declined in quality, forgetting the spare, sadistic inspiration that made the first one interesting. A strong argument could be made that budget size is inversely correlated to quality: just look at Lord of the Rings versus The Hobbit. This isn’t true across the board — historical epics sort of have to be big budget and they’re often quite good — but unlimited money has never translated to a better film.
As you might have guessed, I have a special fondness for low budget filmmaking. That’s one of the reasons I love the (generally fairly reviled by fans) first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a half-length, low budget horror flick with sharp writing and creative takes on classic monsters. I am far more interested to see how filmmakers can work around a limited budget, and if they can make a fascinating movie out of “two guys in a room,” then they have my respect. This week’s entry, the 1997 SF-prison horror film Cube is fiendishly inventive and has a premise almost as limited. Despite the sprawling nature of the locale, only a single 14×14 set was built.
Six strangers wake up trapped in a series of perfectly cube-shaped rooms, with doors on every wall, plus the floor and ceiling, leading to other nearly identical rooms, some of which are trapped. These basically look like the inside of a combination Rubik’s Cube and Lament Configuration. The main characters, who have no memory of how they got there, naturally decide they should try to get out, but this place doesn’t come with an instruction manual. Through often deadly trial and error, they learn to navigate the maze, while the stress breaks each one of them down. The best part of the film is that at no point is the prison explained. There are several debates over who is behind it, and even one compelling (if nihilistic) theory, but there is no confirmation. Writer/director Vincenzo Natali (co-writer/director of the queasy horror coming-of-age Splice, a storyboarder on Ginger Snaps, and frequent director of the incredible Hannibal) has pledged never to reveal what’s outside of the titular cube, and he is absolutely correct in this.
The first clue that there is some method to the madness in the cube-creators comes with the selection of the people imprisoned. Though we only have their stories to go on, and there is evidence that at least one of them is lying, we learn enough to know why each of them is here. We’re venturing into spoiler territory, so FYI if you’re planning to watch it (and you totally should). There’s Quentin the cop, who is used to high-stress situations, is physically formidable, and can calm and motivate those around him. Holloway the doctor can can treat the injured, knows the long-term hazards of starvation and dehydration, and perhaps most importantly is willing to coddle Kazan even before his utility is discovered. Leaven the math student can decipher the numeric codes on the threshold of every door, which turn out to not only be indicators for traps, but coordinates on a cartesian map. Rennes the convict has escaped seven prisons and is ideal for teaching the basics of getting out of there. Worth the cynic and Kazan the autistic at first appear to have no purpose beyond weighing them down, but Worth designed the shell of the cube and thus knows how large it is, and Kazan can do insanely complex math in his head, helping Leaven navigate. In addition, all six characters are named for prisons, with each name giving some clue as to their personalities.
So the mysterious makers of the cube gave them the perfect crew to get out, they just have to figure out what everyone can do. Or not. There are a couple problems with this, and that ambiguity makes the movie more than the disposable bit of entertainment it initially appears to be. Holloway was some kind of conspiracy theorist on the outside, and she instantly chalks this up to the actions of the military industrial complex. Quentin thinks it’s the work of a crazy rich guy looking for kicks. The idea of aliens gets floated, though dismissed mostly because if it’s aliens, they’re fucked anyway. When Worth’s background comes out (in a room dyed in red light for maximum discomfort), he offers the most terrifyingly nihilistic take of all: that the cube has no purpose, no designer. It was built relatively on accident because everyone wanted a job and no one was going to question a source of money. Now it’s being used because to do otherwise would be to admit failure. There is no conspiracy, just a bunch of drones lurching blindly in the dark. Worth seems to be there only to give Leaven the size of the cube, which is far less than any of the others. Was he placed there as punishment? To tie up a loose end? It’s never revealed.
Meanwhile, Quentin grows more and more unhinged, eventually exploding into violence. When I first watched the movie, I was convinced that Quentin was a plant, as the only one of the group who did not have a clear and necessary skill set. I believed his story about the rich asshole using this for entertainment, except Quentin was that rich asshole, tagging along for a close up look. Now I’m not so certain — and that is the mark of a good movie, or at least one that stays with you, constantly being able to re-evaluate it for new meanings and interpretations. His leadership is extremely useful in the beginning, getting everyone motivated and moving them along (although a third act twist renders this deeply ironic, leading me to question whether or not he is a plant). Maybe it was an experiment? Maybe they wanted to see how an unbalanced man could guide the perfect team through the maze?
Huge spoilers now, but what the hell. My favorite part, although it is a gut punch, is that the only one to make it out is the severely autistic Kazan. He is barely capable of understanding what is going on around him, and is the only one who could not comprehend finding something even mundane on the outside. Worth says the world is full of boundless human stupidity, so it’s perfect that the one to make it out would be mentally handicapped. Kazan is entirely unable to communicate what he’d just seen, so even letting him go would keep the cube secret. If it has a master, and I lean toward Worth’s interpretation that it doesn’t, this is an acceptable loss. The theme of the film is fundamentally one of bleak nihilism, where there is no understanding simply because there is nothing to understand. Empathize with the void, and you come back mad, even if you’re following Kazan into the light.