There was a bit of a confluence of Vincenzo Natali occurrences of late, as after talking about Strange Days in our previous episode sent me on a bit of an oddball sci-fi search, and Natali has just released his first film in six years on Netflix. However, it’s a Steven King adaptation, so let’s pretend it didn’t happen and retreat to our pre-Willenium safe space.
Strangers awake in a strange place, as six souls find themselves trapped in an incomprehensible maze, and struggle to, well, comprehend it. Taken from their normal lives by unseen forces, seemingly at random, they are placed inside a malevolent Rubik’s cube of deadly traps.
Maurice Dean Wint’s Quentin McNeil, a police officer, takes the lead in driving the gang forward, on the basis that it’s got to be better than sitting still, aided by Wayne Robson as Rennes, also known as “the Wren”, a serial jail breaker. Nicky Guadagni’s Dr. Helen Holloway provides both medical attention and a running commentary from the, admittedly now somewhat justified conspiracy nut perspective, and while no-one’s quite sure initially what despondent cynic David Hewlett’s David Worth’s function would be, turns out he’s unwittingly a small cog in the design wheels of whatever this structure is.
On the “possibly working out some method in the apparent madness” is Nicole de Boer’s Joan Leaven, a young maths prodigy, and after a fashion, Andrew Miller’s Kazan, a severely autistic man with the capacity to factor prime numbers with amazing speed, which will help them decrypt the few clues to navigating and surviving a cube that seems eager to kill them via slicing, dicing, acid attacks and various other surreal, borderline physically impossible health and safety violations.
For a low budget debut, Cube is still a quite remarkable piece of business, and not just commercially. While it’s not without a clutch of flaws, the central mystery of what on earth this structure is, why it’s been built, and why they find themselves in it is a really strong hook to pull you thought the ninety minutes, alongside the constant threat of a grizzly end. Indeed, it’s masterstroke is that it ultimately gives no answer at all to these questions, a pitfall the sequels blundered into.
It looks much better that it’s budget would perhaps imply, the highly stylised nature helping greatly, and while the dialogue and performances aren’t particularly memorable, it falls squarely into good enough territory. It’s only main failing is, apparently, not not having a way to end things, with some changes to Maurice Dean Wint’s character coming out of nowhere, and making matters even worse by making him do a cut-rate Jason Voorhees tribute act in the final stretch.
Fitting, I suppose, for a sci-fi horror, but I was more on board with the sci-fi than the horror, so, well, the final reel is perhaps is more of an ending than a conclusion. Yet, still a bold and distinctive debut directorial turn from Natali and worth excavating these twenty odd years later.
it took five years for Natali to direct another film, that being 2002’s Cypher, set in that brief window where bleach bypassing was a thing. Jeremy Northam’s Morgan Sullivan lives a dreary life as an accountant, but rather than go off to work for his father in law’s firm, he instead takes a post as a corporate spy for the shadowy Digicorp. He’s tasked with attending and surreptitiously recording the most banal of industry seminars but we soon find out that things are not what they seem.
Meeting Lucy Liu’s Rita Foster at one event, she clues him into what’s actually going on, giving him drugs to counteract the brainwashing that Digicorp’s been performing on him to reinforce his assumed identity as a spy to, presumably, better enable future nefariousness. He soon becomes a double agent for rival corporation Sunway Systems, promising him a way out, but before long things aren’t quite what they seem there either, and who’s this Sebastian Rooks fellow everyone keeps mentioning anyway?
It’s not a film well suited to a blow by blow narrative, in particular because that narrative is about 98% of the film. Character, by virtue of the slender identities that Northam is inhabiting for the film, is not the strongest suite, and frankly it’s to his credit that his twitchy, somewhat eerie performance can drive the film along, with some surer support from Lucy Liu.
It’s a stylish yarn, and while I don’t think it holds up all that well to repeat viewing, I like this a lot on first viewing and liked this rewatch well enough, although curiously the effects work has aged much worse in Cypher than in Cube, perhaps because there’s so much more of it, and it’s all entirely superfluous.
I believe this was seen as a bit of a Marmite film in it’s day, neatly splitting audiences into hating it and loved it camps, and I don’t think it did particularly well and has largely faded into obscurity, at least for everyone that didn’t pick up the gloriously shiny DVD issue back in the day. It deserves better, I think, and also worth pulling out of the vault for a more considered bit of science fiction than is the norm these days.
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