(Vincenzo Natali, Can, 1997)
Canadian director Vincenzo Natali's Cube is a low-budget but pretty slick and original high-concept SF movie. The perfect antidote to mindless summer Hollywood 'product', Cube is minimalist, abstract and intelligent SF for those who demand inventiveness and style from their favourite genre. From the stunning and horrific pre-credits sequence, you'll either be gripped or turned off completely.
Six strangers awaken to find themselves trapped inside a maze of interlocking chambers. All the cells have a door in each of their six sides which, when opened, lead into a different-coloured but seemingly identical cell. The different colour of each chamber masks fatal booby-traps that slaughter the careless. There is no explanation as to how or why the six individuals got there. It's simply about survival. Will the disparate group be killed or will their nerve break and become killers themselves?
Such a simple scenario may sound less than 'exciting'. But you'd be wrong. Due to strong character writing and an equally strong and taut script, Natali manages to pull off this small but perfectly-formed SF thriller with bravura. The central idea of a range of diverse characters each with their own strengths and weaknesses having to avoid traps and successfully navigate similar, connecting rooms seems inspired by a thousand platform computer games. But unlike films which set out to adapt video games for the big screen and get it all wrong by trying to cram in too many source elements (Street Fighter springs to mind), Cube takes a simple premise and keeps it simple. The result packs a visceral and emotional punch.
Despite the modest budget, the special effects throughout are impressive at least, mind-blowing at best. A combination of prosthetics and CGI, the use of prosthetics in the horrific, pre-credits sequence is simply some of the best I have ever seen. In addition, the sparingly-used but stylish CGIs add a subtle extra digital twist. Upon reflection, details such as the main players all having names taken from famous prisons show that Natali invested great effort in giving the production a personal touch that helps set it apart. With a background in directing a number of SF shorts, Natali also worked as storyboard artist on Johnny Mnemonic. As a first feature, Cube is a debut that puts the young director well and truly on the SF movie map - something even fellow Canadian David Cronenberg has acknowledged - praise indeed.
Viewers must completely discard all Hollywood-induced preconceptions of what an SF film should deliver to get the most from Cube. Everything form the special effects work, through the impressive set design, to Mark Korven's eerie, almost subliminal score is spot on. The film's only real weaknesses are some shaky acting in places combined with some particularly cheesy dialogue at times. Nevertheless, the overall result is imaginative, fascinating and exceedingly clever.