Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Movie Review: Cube and Hypercube: Cube II

*MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT*This is a discussion of the movies Cube and Hypercube: Cube II. It contains all kinds of spoilers. You have been warned!

I saw Cube without any fore-knowledge. I'd seen mentions of it, usually with strong recommendations, on various sites and blogs, but didn't know much when I rented the DVD. That lack of foreknowledge, I think, was to my benefit. Sorry to ruin it for you.

A group of people wake up inside a three-dimensional, maze-like series of rooms. Each room is 14 X 14 x 14 feet, with a sliding hatch in the middle of each wall, floor and ceiling included. Each room connects to another room that is identical in all respects except the panel coloring. They have no idea where they are or how they got there. They try to find their way out and learn that the Cube is deadly, too. After a while, they notice there's a mathematical solution to their predicament. They start to make real progress in getting out until emotion gets in the way and tragedy results.

Cube is stylish as all hell. The rooms are neatly designed and colored: red, green, gold, blue. It seems that the very small, tight budget forced the director and producers into a lot of creative choices that paid off handsomely.

Casting proved another boon. There is no "star" in this movie, so there's no clue to who might survive or not. The closest recognisable faces are Nicole DeBoer (of Deep Space Nine and Dead Zone) and Maurice Dean Wint (lots of smaller films and parts). The fact that the movie is essentially played out on one set (the rooms are identical, remember?) forces us to focus on the characters as well, and makes for fever-hot interactions.

Our first introduction to the movie shows one character being killed in a swift and grisly way, letting us know immediately that the Cube is deadly. Once we start to meet the others and they begin to explore, we know the stakes for them. Then, we meet one character who seems to have found a way to get out. It works, for a while, until he dies, too.

Finally, DeBoer's character, a math student, notices that every threshold between rooms has a number. She quickly figures out that there's a mathematical basis to whether a room is deadly or not, speeding up their exploration. And that also sets the theme of the movie and the underlying message.

Cube is, at heart, a warning that we must all learn to work together, or we'll die. After the characters have been interacting for a while, we start to learn something about each. It turns out later that the group has all it needs in terms of skill sets and personality types to survivie the Cube. There's the cop, the natural leader; a doctor; a prison escape artist; a math student. Each has a piece of the survival puzzle to contribute.

Then there's the guy, a clueless office drone who worked on a part of the Cube's door, who gives us a deliberately murky overview of the Cube itself. He thinks it's a government project that somehow got orphaned but still survived somehow and is still kept going by folks like him who don't know why they're doing their jobs or to what purpose, but keep doing them anyway. The Cube becomes a metaphor for life. None of us can see the big picture, so we just keep doing our part and hope for the best.

There's the message that life (ie. the Cube) can be puzzled out and some direction taken if we use reason as our guide. If we can only learn and recognise the underlying rules in the game/life, we can survive. It also strongly shows that we must work together and know each other in order to make it. The cop organises; the doctor treats; the mathematician leads the way. As you can see, there's a strong bias to Reason (capital R) that's later explicitly spelled out when emotions run too high and things fall apart.

But there's another part of the movie I kinda found odd. The cop, after a while, begins to place his own survival above the rest. At one point, he finally turns a corner and goes mad, killing one character who he perceives as a threat to his survival. He then herds the others, instead of leading. His power -- police authority -- drives him to insanity; power corrupting absolutely. It's a message about placing the self above the group, which I find to be Socialist and anti-capitalistic in context. It also says something about power placing some people above others when the ideal is the even-level group. Hey, the movie was made in Canada, so what do you expect?

Listening to the commentary, it was fun to see that the director and producers had a vision and stayed true to it. They consulted a mathematician about the Cube and did their best to stick with his rules. They had a design for the Cube and never let production design considerations override it. They consciously chose not to reveal much about the whos and whys of the Cube, keeping viewers completely in the dark, which only added to the mystery and dread of the experience. We are simply dropped into the Cube and we're off. The plot and narrative continue until a resolution is reached, but no answers are really given. It's up to us to figure out what it all meant, just like life.

It's smart choices all around, coupled with respect for the intelligence of the audience, that make the movie so enjoyable. You're plopped into a claustrophobic thriller, answers are few and far between, luck plays a big role, death is a very real possibility. The tension starts to drive everyone a bit mad, including the audience, until one guy goes over the top. Now you have to not only survive the Cube, but your partners. This is one taut, gripping movie.

I guess word of mouth audience response and critical praise led someone to realise that another movie should be attempted. And here is where Hollywood steps in and ruins it all by making all the wrong choices.

Every choice that the original producers made, for good reasons, is tossed out in Hypercube, for bad or wrong reasons. It's a new Cube: solid white all around. Our first introduction to the movie is quick, jittery cuts of people being prepped in some strange, sinister medical facility -- obviously connected to the Hypercube. It's lazy shorthand for a bad corporation or military group with an evil agenda. The first characters we meet aren't just Everymen and Everywomen, but a military man who knows where he is and how bad it is (telling us, instead of showing as the first movie did; a common error in the second movie) another man who is pretty clearly a killer, again lazily throwing in unearned danger instead of creating it through characterisation and plotting.

In this movie, it turns out that it's not a collection of skills and personalities that have been brought together with a group survival test in mind, but a disparate group who all have a connection in varying degrees to a corporation that seems bent on killing them. Each character has a piece of the puzzle to contribute, but we only get it when it's conveniently needed. There's lots of talk of some mysterious, unseen other character who is obviously being hyped for the audience so their appearance later can have a payoff. It's a cheap tactic by lazy writers, as I've already noted.

And then there's the Hypercube. The characters tell us as they go along that this maze has NO RULES. It's all very random, but still deadly. There's explanatory mumbo-jumbo, what they call in Star Trek "technobabble," so we learn that this is a four dimensional Cube (hence the name) that's going very wrong. But in this film we have one character who is privy to a lot of background, which he gladly shares for us when the time is right.

I really dislike that, the Hypercube having no rules. It means nothing they do or try really matters. Death will be random, their actions' outcomes based largely on chance and not merit. In the first movie it was life and death; in this one, eh, shit happens.

Like the first movie, the killer character begins to murder folks, but there's no tension to it, he's not driven by the death and claustrophobia but is just a killer. Geraint Wynn Davies plays that character, and since he's the "star" (from the darkly stylish vampire series "Forever Knight) he deforms our expectations. Plus, he's just physically wrong for the part he's given. He's got a middle-age spread that's pretty bad and pasty skin. Hardly scary.

The first movie had messages buried inside it. This one doesn't; it's straight scary movie with blood chaser. And the ending, which I can't spoil, is so left-field and terrible as to make you leave the film not asking "What just happened?" but "What the hell?" It's a sudden turn so not-set up, and it still confirms everything they've been saying earlier, but then it makes everything up to the end all pointless, undercutting the viewer's identification with the survivor. It had no precedent and hence has no payoff, no earned punch. It's a sucker punch and pisses you off the same way.

Final round-up: Cube is great. Taut, stylish, keeps you guessing. Yeah, it's based on a mathematics that's over the heads of most of the audience, but it's based on something and sticks with it. Hypercube is lazy and cheap in the narrative sense. It ignores the setup of the first movie to re-invent the premise a screenwriter's idea of bad guys and danger. No payoffs because it has no pay-ins.

There's word that a Cube III is about to go into production. I'm gonna give it a pass, I think.

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