Thursday, February 4, 2016

CUBE (1997): a Canadian SciFi - Horror Cult Classic

Theatrical Poster for CUBE (1997)
Theatrical Poster for CUBE (1997), by Cineplex Odeon Films, Fair Use asserted.

The annual online celebration of Canadian cinema is again at hand. Accepting the challenge posed by the O Canada Blogathon, Texas's Frisco Kid delves into "Cube" (1997), the Canadian science-fiction and horror cult-classic film. It is a paragon of everything (just about) that can go right in the making of a first feature film. As we will see, Canada itself had a hand in making this film possible.

Background and Credits

Writer-director Vincenzo Natali
"Vincenzo Natali at WonderCon 2010 4" by BrokenSphere - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The film's producers (Mehra Meh and Betty Orr) had a low budget of approximately C$350,000 with which to work, but had the good fortune to gain the support of the Canadian Film Centre's First Feature Project (now CFC Features). Vincenzo Natali ("Haunter," 2013; "The ABCs of Death 2," segment "U is for Utopia", 2014) directed "Cube" and co-wrote the screenplay. Natali's screenwriting partners were AndrĂ© Bijelic and Graeme Manson. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1997. It won Best Canadian First Feature Film there and went on to win several more awards, including Best Film and Best Screenplay at Sitges in 1998.

"Cube" presents an ensemble cast that includes the following actors:

  • Maurice Dean Wint ("Haven," 2012 and 2015) as Quentin, a police officer.
  • David Hewlett ("Haunter," 2013; "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," 2011) as Worth, an engineer.
  • Nicole de Boer ("Stargate: Atlantis," 2011; "The Dead Zone," 2002) as Leaven, a college student.
  • Nicky Guadagni ("Silent Hill," 2006) as Holloway, a free-clinic doctor.
  • Andrew Miller ("Nothing," dir. Vincenzo Natali, 2003) as Kazan, an autistic man.
  • Julian Richings ("A Christmas Horror Story," 2015) as Alderson, a man who wakes up by himself in the Cube and never meets the rest of the group.
  • Wayne Robson ("Wrong Turn," 2003; "The Incredible Hulk," 2008) as Rennes, a career criminal and escape artist who has broken out of seven prisons.

Story Summary

Clip from CUBE (1997)
David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, Nicky Guadagni, and Maurice Dean Wint in CUBE (1997) - image source: Yahoo! Movies

Seven strangers with diverse backgrounds and personalities wake up within a deadly prison that consists entirely of interconnected, cube-shaped rooms. One dies immediately; the rest eventually find each other. At first, they have no clues about who built the Cube or why they are there. Without food and water, they explore the Cube's booby-trapped rooms while trying to work together to find their way out. That won't be easy, as interpersonal conflict proves to be as deadly as the Cube's killing devices.



Clip from CUBE (1997)
Alderson (Julian Richings), the first inmate to die in CUBE (1997) - image source: House of horror (
While the concept is simple, Natali and his creative partners execute it in script and on screen in an ingenious way. The first scene, which appears before the opening credits opening, grabs the viewer's attention as it introduces the story's central, claustrophobic premise (as shown above). As reviewers such as Best Horror Movies have pointed out, the "Saw" horror franchise subsequently adopted and developed this prison-as-killing-machine trope in a much more lucrative fashion.

That the people who find themselves trapped in this mortal dilemma are prisoners is confirmed by their names. Their surnames are derived from major prisons around the world. Leaven and Worth share the same derivation (Leavenworth, the Federal penitentiary in the United States), which foreshadows their eventual pairing.

Screen cap from CUBE (1997)
"The Wren" meets his fate in CUBE (1997) - image source: DigitalSpy

The story builds tension while introducing the occasional red herring to divert the audience. The appearance of Rennes (Robson), or "The Wren," provides a false hope to the group and also an opportunity for excellent, low-budget physical horror effects. The film does not, however, rely on physical horror to power it to its conclusion. Psychological horror quickly takes over as personality conflicts emerge. Each character has a particular talent or ability that the group can use in its attempt to survive and escape. However, each one also brings significant liabilities to the group that are mental in origin.

Paranoia is the major stumbling block for the group. Although it is an understandable reaction to the claustrophobic and enigmatic predicament with which it must grapple, the group has members whose life experiences make them prone to suspicion and fear. The story relies on the preexisting paranoia of Holloway (Guadagni), the narcissism of Quentin (Wint), and the cynicism of Worth (Hewlett). The attitudes of these characters contrasts clearly with the youthful optimism of Leaven (de Boer) and the naive innocence of Kazan (Miller).

Screen cap from CUBE (1997)
And then there were four: Leaven (de Boer) reacts in a well-framed shot from CUBE (1997) - image source:

Some reviewers have faulted the script's dialogue as sometimes descending into triteness and irrelevance. While this is an accurate assessment, the resulting false notes do not irreversibly mar the story or derail its progress. Likewise, the characters could have been more rounded, but character development was limited by the film's budget, which forced them to perform on just one set, which is the cinematic equivalent of a bare stage in theatre. There were not as many opportunities for characters to demonstrate change and growth (or deterioration) as can be found in a larger-budget production, which can place characters in an array of challenging environments.


Given that the cast members were relatively unknown outside of Canada when the film was made, the acting in this film is surprisingly good. As Kim Newman of Empire notes,

The cast are the sort of faces who show up in Canadian­-shot (South Park fans will notice a high "aboot" rate in the dialogue) trash TV like The Outer Limits, Forever Knight and The Hunger, and sometimes aren't quite up to scenes that call for subtlety as well as hysteria. But the non-­star ensemble ensures a level of surprise about who of these characters — all named after various prisons — will make it through, with a couple of last­-minute, against­-the-­cliche sacrifices. There's a clever arc as the very qualities — take-­charge indomitability, quickness to action, determination to survive — that mark Quentin (the only black character) out as a hero at the beginning then turn him into the psychopathic menace who has to be ditched and bested so that the others can make it to freedom.

Although Newman and some other reviewers praised Wint's performance as Quentin, he seems to be overacting at times. Although Wint does not "chew the scenery," he seems to be exaggerating his reactions, as if he is using stage-acting techniques that do not translate well to the screen. Guadagni's Holloway is also too much of a caricature. Hewlett, de Boer, and Miller deliver more convincing performances.


The "Cube" filmmakers did a lot with a small budget. In particular, its production design (by Jasna Stefanovic ["The Virgin Suicides," 1999]), cinematography (by Derek Rogers ["Resident Evil: Apocalypse," 2004]), original musical score (by Mark Korven ["The Witch," 2015]) and visual and special effects are impressive. Natali's prior storyboarding experience (for "Johnny Mnemonic") also was of great benefit; the director did extensive storyboarding for this film that undoubtedly helped to develop his vision of its look and feel in a way that helped him to overcome the limitations imposed by a low level of funding.

One of the advantages enjoyed by this indie film is that it was made in Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada provides public assistance to its talented and emerging filmmakers. While the Canadian Film Centre is a private organization -- "founded by iconic Canadian filmmaker Norman Jewison as a film school in 1988, we have become an essential hub for ideas and innovation within the global entertainment sphere" -- the Canadian government is a major partner. The CFC provided a kind of entrepreneurial incubator for Natali and his team that helped them to develop and execute their project. Such means are not available in the United States on the Federal level and are much more scattered and disorganized at the state level and in the private sector.


Rob Wrigley of Classic Horror sums up "Cube" well:

The film contains effective, low­-budget photography, solid performances, and a good score. But what really sets Cube apart from so much sci­-fi drivel is that the director never forgets that while he can be as philosophical, and intellectual, and clever as he wants, the most important thing is to be entertaining. If there are any lessons to be learned from Cube, they are for film students and low-­budget directors. It won't tell you how to live a useful life in an uncaring, arbitrary universe. But will show you how to take a worn premise, a small cast, and a single set, and make a terrific little film.

TFK's Rating (on IMDb)

7 out of 10 stars

This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon,

Disclosure: TFK viewed this film via iTunes and wrote this review based on personal selection. No review request was involved in this choice.