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Proof-positive that a good story and strong execution can trump such film issues as iffy acting and low budgets, Vincenzo Natali’s debut feature, Cube (1997) is a minor classic of indie-sci fi, a modest, mind-bending little film that would go on to serve as a pretty apt calling card for the writer-director as he would move on to bigger and better things. Using limited sets, astoundingly realistic (and ultra-gnarly) practical effects and an intriguing core concept, Cube manages to succeed as both sci fi and horror and would go on to launch a franchise (although, like the Hellraiser franchise, only the first couple films are actually any good).

One of Cube’s greatest strengths is the streamlined simplicity of its storyline. In a nutshell, a group of complete strangers wake up in a strange series of square, interconnected rooms. The rooms have entry/exit hatches in each wall, with mysterious sets of numbers etched into them. None of the strangers know where they are, why they’re there or what they need to do to escape. There’s only one stone cold fact: most of the rooms are booby-trapped with a variety of nasty, instant death scenarios (acid to the face, razor-wire that cuts bodies into bite-sized pieces, flame traps, gas traps, etc…). The group will need to overcome their distrust and paranoia towards each other in order to combine their skills and figure out the mystery of their “prison.” As their numbers dwindle and power plays erupt left and right (mostly courtesy of Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), the bullying cop who serves as de facto leader), the prisoners will discover the ultimate truth about “the cube,” a truth that could spell doom for them all.

There’s so much that works spectacularly well with Natali’s debut that it might be a little more illustrative to point out the aspects that fail miserably. The first and most major issue with Cube is the decidedly amateurish, over-the-top acting: this was actually so off-putting that I seriously considered stopping the film midway through my first viewing years ago. For the most part, the acting consists of actors angrily shouting lines at each other, an aspect that gave me unhappy flashbacks to George Romero’s equally shouty Day of the Dead (1985). It winds up being a pretty major problem, at least until one gets sucked into the storyline, mostly because it makes it nearly impossible to suspend disbelief: there’s no point in the film where I ever really buy the characters as anything more than actors, even by the film’s conclusion. In particular, Maurice Dean Wint is a nostril-flaring, forehead-creasing, scenery-munching force of nature, a performer who manages to turn the simplest lines into cumbersome head-scratchers. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better but it’s a pretty difficult task to out-shout Wint: by comparison, everyone else seems to be underacting to the point of doing mumble-core.

The second issue, although a decidedly more minor one, is Cube’s decidedly low budget. Despite the brilliant set design, it’s pretty obvious that the entire film takes place in only a couple of rooms, giving the whole production an almost play-like feel. The effects work is absolutely stellar, particularly concerning the low budget, but closer inspection of some of the backgrounds and props reveal a decidedly more low-rent affair. Again, not a deal breaker under any stretch of the imagination but certainly an issue that the filmmakers grapple with.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the end of Cube’s “big issues”: past that point, it’s some pretty damn smooth sailing. The overarching story is fascinating, filled with twists, turns and unanswered questions galore, easily grabbing the audience’s attention when the acting gets a little too intense. The set design, despite the low budget, is astonishing, managing to replicate some of the look and feel of a film like 2001 (1968) on 1/100th of the budget. The kills are very creative, extremely gory and very well-executed: the basic setup to the film finds us holding our breath whenever the group enters a new room, even in those instances where the room has been deemed “safe.” The discussions of mathematics and higher-level logic puzzles, as relates to the mysterious strings of numbers, are dizzying but help place the film on a higher intellectual shelf than any of a thousand similar low-budget films, particularly sci-fi related ones. Quite simply, Cube is one smart film and handily serves as a bridge to similarly smart contemporary films like Pi (1998) and Primer (2004): if anything, think of Cube as the “gateway drug” to get sci fi neophytes into the more complex stuff…Starship Troopers (1997), this ain’t.

Ultimately, Cube will always stand as one of those films that not only took me by surprise but ended up completely blowing me away. In fact, Cube is actually one of the films that’s responsible for my current tendency to resist the urge to turn off films: had I given up on Natali’s debut before it had a chance to sink its claws into me, I would have not only missed one of the best indie sci-fi/horror films ever but I probably would have ended up missing out on the rest of Natali’s oeuvre, a body of work which has proven consistently tricky, thought-provoking and endlessly entertaining. Cube taught me that, sometimes, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. When Natali is piloting the ship, I’ve learned to just kick back and put my faith in the captain.