Just under a decade before a man and his tricycle-loving puppet friend took over the game, a little movie called Cube was the standard-bearer for locking strangers together in an area lousy with traps. Looking back on Cube with a modern set of eyes, its faults are drawn into sharp relief. They’re the same set of faults common among low-budget genre movies. Cube transcends its issues and its financial limitations by virtue of an absolutely killer premise, one which elevates the film to the level of a unquestioned late 90’s era cult classic.
The premise of Cube goes like this: Seven strangers are scattered among a number of cube-shaped rooms, inside a much-larger cube-shaped prison. Each room has a door on each wall and one on the ceiling and floor which leads to another room. Most of the group members find each other quickly and they begin making their way from room to room in search of a way out. They have to tread very lightly as some rooms are home to a variety of vicious traps, including acid sprayers, sound-activated spikes and screens of razor wire. The usual rounds of “Who are we?” and “What are we doing here?” questions follow, the answers revealing the very specific role each member of the party has to play in order to make it out alive.
Where Cube comes up short is mainly in the effects and in the acting – which is something that anyone familiar with low budget movie-making likely could have guessed. Even by 1997 standards (when the film was made) the effects work leaves much to be desired. The computer effects that is. The film’s practical effects game is strong. To its credit, the film doesn’t rely heavily on digital effects to create it traps or its settings, but when it does, the seams are noticeable.
As for the acting, it’s not all terrible. Nicole de Boer, who plays a young math student named Leaven, works a fair bit of nuance into her character. Early in the film, she seems pegged as the panicked, hysterical character who grates on the nerves. However, as her number-crunching skills become critical to revealing which rooms are trapped and which aren’t, she develops not only a renewed sense of purpose, but a bit of a self-assured swagger to boot.
The trouble spots lie with Maurice Dean Wint’s Quentin, a fiery beat cop who goes from the group’s leader to possibly the biggest threat to its survival. Wint struggles to maintain the line between intimidating and cartoony, too often careening into the latter. The script doesn’t exactly do right by him, either. His exchanges with another member of the group, Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), are marred by the pair of them announcing “I am this” and “You are this,” in place of allowing their motivating factors to crystalize naturally.
Truthfully though, none of that matters thanks to the movie’s set-up, pacing, and energy. It’s such an blast to watch the characters problem-solve their way through this impossible, nightmarish prison-maze that any quibbles about the acting or effects feel like afterthoughts. While Cube is more restrained than something like Saw in terms of graphic violence, it has enough in common that, had it come out just a few years later, it feels like it could have been a major hit. Instead, Cube just has to be content being this weird and imaginative ride that was completely ahead of its time.