Robert Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers, once wrote: ‘Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house’. The writing team behind Cube would probably agree. A gripping tale of survival horror, it’s one that gives the maths geeks the best chance to come out alive and shows the barbarism of men with no respect for geometry.
Maths and horror are strangely comfortable bedfellows, as shown by the Omen films’ fixation on the number 666 (inspired by the Book of Revelation) or the many-angled devils found in the work of HP Lovecraft and Clive Barker. On TV, maths and sci-fi combined in two seminal game shows, The Adventure Game and The Crystal Maze, which have cult followings to this day. Indeed, one of the most thought-provoking documentaries of recent years - The Trap - showed the links between numerology and the tenets of modern society.
The numbers behind Cube‘s horror are as follows: it cost C$365,000 (Canadian), it features 6 actors and has 2 (inferior) sequels. It was shot in 1 room, 14 feet cubed, with 5 different gels on the walls so that it could be reused to represent the multitude of similar rooms that make up the cube. Which results in the following equation: 0 means + 1 good idea + 10 talented people = 1 good film.
The film opens in spectacular manner with the cubist vivisection of an unnamed character, following which we meet five other people wandering through the claustrophobic maze, none of whom know how they got there and all of whom are strangely named after prisons. Like animals in a science experiment, they begin to be affected in different ways by the conditions of their confinement. As they go from identical room to identical room, each hiding a more perverse and deadly trap than the previous one, a taciturn loner becomes a hero while the alpha male turns into a murderer. These are themes that director Vincenzo Natali would return to six years later in his film Nothing, which reunited him with two of the stars of Cube – David Hewlett and Andrew Miller. In Nothing, it’s being marooned in a white void that slowly drives the characters mad (or their madness that maroons them in a white void); but where in that film, their boundless situation is played for laughs, in Cube their world is as bleak as it is constricting. Inside the cube, the lack of information, the strange Jack Kirbyesque details on the walls and the absence of any outside world makes the environment of the film timeless and suitably, subtly existential. These are characters defined purely by their actions within the maze.
In the end, one person escapes - although into what is unclear - and the identity of the survivor is entirely in keeping with a game in which the only pure form of communication is maths. Watching the prisoners solve that puzzle makes the preceding 89 minutes an excellent form of escapism for the audience as well.