As part of the festivities for National Canadian Film Day 150, the Royal Cinema in Toronto is hosting a free 20th anniversary screening this evening of Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 debut feature film Cube. The film premiered at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Canadian First Feature. The film has since become a sci-fi/horror cult classic and many of the then-unknown cast members moved on to more familiar roles. In anticipation of this evening’s screening, I thought I would go back and examine what exactly makes Cube such an iconic Canadian film. Please note, that I will be delving into some major SPOILERS during my discussion.
The first character seen in Cube is Alderson, played by legendary Canadian character actor Julian Richings. Not saying a word, Alderson examines the cube-shaped room he finds himself in, with a metal door on each side. Eventually, Alderson decides to step through one of the doors, which leads to a similarly cube-shaped room, except with an orange lighting scheme. Mere seconds after entering the room, something whooshes past Alderson. Bloody lines begin to appear across his body, before Alderson falls apart into many cube-shaped pieces. The fence-like trap is then seen resetting itself, before the film cuts to title.
Over the course of just four minutes of screen time, Cube tells the audience everything they would need to know about the film, without uttering a single line of dialogue. First, the film is set in a maze of nearly identical cube-shaped rooms, differentiated only by colour. Second, there are deadly traps in some of the rooms. And finally, no one is safe in this story. It is probably no coincidence that Julian Richings, arguably the most established actor in the cast at the time, was cast to play the doomed Alderson. Cube arrived just a year after Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo, in which Richings had a notable supporting role. As such, there was a chance that audiences would recognize the actor, before watching him getting killed off in a very gruesome manner.
The next scene of Cube introduces the bulk of the central characters, with their presumptive roles quickly established: Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint) identifies himself as a cop and quickly takes a leadership role; Architect Worth (David Hewlett) immediately responds with apathy and just sits on the floor; Free clinic doctor Holloway (Nicky Guadagni) is a fearful conspiracy theorist; Scared college student Leaven (Nicole de Boer) immediately needs rescuing; And finally, escape artist Rennes (Wayne Robson) seems to have a grip on the situation. Later the group comes across an autistic man named Kazan (Andrew Miller), who appears to be little more than a liability.
One of the most interesting things that Vincenzo Natali does with Cube is that he develops the characters to be completely different that they initially appear. The first sign of this is Rennes, who immediately after giving a speech about minding your surroundings, gets sprayed in the face with acid and becomes the first of the group to die. It should be interesting to note that even though Cube is initially established to be a film about a maze with death traps, the traps actually factor very little to the plot following Rennes’ death.
After being introduced as a damsel-in-distress, Leaven reveals herself as one of the keys to navigating the maze, since she is a budding mathematician and is able to do the calculations to come up with the Cartesian coordinates of each room. In a similar vein, late in the film, Kazan reveals himself to be a savant, who is able to calculate prime numbers instantly. While Holloway initially comes off as a crazed conspiracy theorist, she later becomes a more motherly figure to Kazan.
The wildcards of the group are Worth and Quentin. At a point in the film, it is revealed that the reason for Worth’s apathy is because he was part of the architecture firm that built the cube, which results in him having a sense of worthlessness when he found himself inside. While this revelation is seemingly setting up Worth for an antagonistic role, it quickly turns out that Quentin is the true villain of the group. Revealing himself to be less heroic as he initially appeared, Quentin kills Halloway in cold blood and develops an unhealthy obsession with Leven and is eventually left for dead after being attacked by a now decidedly heroic Worth.
Worth, Leaven, and Kazan seem poised to escape when they figure out the rooms are moving and they find themselves in the room that is about to move towards the exit, which just happens to be the room the group started in. However, escape isn’t so simple, as Quentin returns and impales Leaven with a door handle and mortally wounds Worth. Worth ends up using his last strength to trap Quentin between rooms as they begin to move, resulting in him being torn apart. At the end, the person to escape the cube ends up being the most unlikely of the bunch, that being the simple minded Kazan, who is seen walking into a bright light.
Ultimately, Cube ends up being much more of a character study than a simple horror film, with most of the deaths being from the characters killing each other, rather than the deadly Rube Goldberg style traps. The film also smartly keeps things ambiguous about why the cube was there in the first place, though the sequels Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) and Cube Zero (2004) try to unveil the secrets of the cube, to a somewhat lesser result.
Vincenzo Natali followed up Cube with 2002’s Cypher (aka Brainstorm), which screened as part of the Midnight Madness programme at TIFF. Natali’s third film Nothing (2003) wasn’t very notable, though he again gained buzz for his fourth feature film Splice, which also happened to be the film of his to get the widest release, thanks to Splice being picked up by producer Joel Silver, who distributed it through his Dark Castle Entertainment label at Warner Bros. Following his fifth feature Haunter, which came and went in 2013, Natali has been spending much more time directing episodes of TV series, including his own series Darknet and others such as Hannibal, The Strain, and Westworld.
As for the cast of the film, many would move on to more profile roles, particularly in the science fiction genre. Nicole de Boer probably had the biggest success since starring in Cube, with her joining the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1998, followed by a starring role in the 2002-2007 TV series The Dead Zone. Another face probably now pretty familiar to sci-fi fans is David Hewlett. Not only has Hewlett, a close friend of Vincenzo Natali, appeared in all the director’s subsequent films, but he was also a regular on Stargate SG-1 (2001-2007) and its spin-off Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009). Then there is Maurice Dean Wint, who was already somewhat established for his role on the television series’ Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future (1987-1988) and Tekwar (1994-1996). Following Cube, Wint would make a very notable appearance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), followed by a number of TV appearances, including a recurring role on the 2010 series Haven.
It is somewhat bittersweet that Vincenzo Natali never ended up becoming the next David Cronenberg, as those who saw Cube in 1997 might have hoped. However, in its two decade existence, Cube has established itself as a certified sci-fi horror cult classic and has secured its place in this history of Canadian genre cinema.
Cube screens as part of National Canadian Film Day 150 tonight at 8:00 PM at the Royal Cinema in Toronto. Special guests will be in attendance.