Cube

Cube

I haven’t written about many movies that could be classified as science fiction so far, as I don’t watch a lot of movies of that genre. But there have been a few (depending on how broadly the term is interpreted), including The Final Cut and The Road.

Probably the one Cube resembles most is Punishment Park, just in the very general sense that they’re both about people being incarcerated or punished by the state in some kind of futuristic or unreal way. Beyond that they’re not very similar in content or style at all.

Actually, what Cube put me in mind of more than any of the movies I’ve written about is a Twilight Zone episode, the one where several people (a clown, a cowboy, a ballerina, etc.) wake up in some sort of cylindrical dungeon or enclosure with no clue how they got there, and then spend the entire episode trying to figure out some means of escape.

Those unfortunate folks turned out to be toys in a charity bin on a snowy street at Christmas. The people in Cube are not toys (they might well prefer that they were, as it turns out), but the set-up is quite similar.

Various people (who soon discover each other’s existence and form into a group of about a half dozen) wake up to find themselves having mysteriously been removed from the world and placed in some kind of prison or maze consisting of an unknown number of virtually identical boxlike rooms with unlocked doors on all sides allowing passage from room to room. They have no idea why they are there. They have no indication there is any “jailer” or anyone who will provide food and water or anything like that, so they assume they need to escape the contraption somehow if they are to survive.

In talking to each other, they discover that they are seemingly an assortment of “regular” people. That is, they aren’t Navy SEALs or prisoners of war or whatever undergoing some training or punishment, but a doctor, a cop, a college student math major, a white collar office worker, etc. They wonder if there’s a randomness to this or if they’ve intentionally been chosen precisely to pool the talents that are associated with their occupations and backgrounds.

Because escaping from the maze apparently is going to take just such a combination of skills. A certain number of the rooms turn out to be booby trapped. The group gets thinned out one by one as prisoners happen to step into the wrong room and immediately get killed in some creatively gory, automatic way—sliced to ribbons by dozens of razor-sharp blades that pass through their body, doused in the face by jets of acid, etc. It has a kind of high tech or unreal feel to it, like they’re trapped in a video game and getting zapped (albeit not with multiple lives, or the ability to start over with a new game).

Further, there are numbers at the entrance to each room, which may be some sort of code that could tell them which rooms provide a path out, which are booby trapped, etc.

I see the film as trying to do three main things. One, provide the action, suspense, and interesting storyline of a basic science fiction movie about people trying to escape from this mysterious place. Two, explore the psychological dynamics that develop among these characters, and how their personality types, values, etc. help or hinder their efforts. Three, make some broader moral or political point or points about the human condition, using this prison of cubes and the prisoners’ plight as a symbol or metaphor.

I think all three are worthwhile goals, with the second and third having the most potential to take the movie in a deeper direction and give it more significant value than just superficial entertainment.

But though I admire the goals, I think the execution is mixed at best, with the execution in pursuit of the second and third being especially shaky.

As far as how it fares just as a simple, straightforward story about the escape attempt, it worked more than not for me. I maintained a high level of interest in the story pretty much the whole way.

I’ll mention a few quibbles about that though. One, the movie fails to avoid the cliché of too many dramatic and far-fetched close calls. There are scenes where a person jumps out of a booby trapped room a split second before they would have been killed, in a way that if a professional athlete or stunt person practiced every day of their life there’s still a less than 1% chance they’d get the timing down that impeccably. Or a person loses her grip on some ledge and is about to plunge to her death and another character reaches out and grabs her hand at the last possible moment. Stuff like that. Totally unrealistic.

(A wonderful counterexample to this kind of thing is in The Big Lebowski when the protagonists concoct some daring scheme to foil the bad guys by pretending to throw a package of money from a moving car, but to then do a switcheroo, and grab this, and distract this person, and jump over here, and be back here before this happens, and on and on, and you just know if it were Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis or James Bond that that’s just how it would all go, but instead it falls apart in the first five seconds and they’re not in a position to do any of that stuff. Which is precisely how it would play out in real life rather than in Movie Land.)

Another quibble is they seem way too convinced that they’ll escape if they can just get out of the box. But as a viewer, I’m thinking wherever this “thing” is, I really doubt it’s in some open area with an unguarded exterior. Surely it’s within some military base or prison or something, and if they ever do emerge from some doorway to the “outside,” they’ll be met by lots and lots of people with big, scary guns.

For that matter, it’s not certain that staying put will mean they starve to death. That’s just a guess on their part.

Granted, trying to get out probably gives them a better shot. Maybe staying in whatever cube they start in means there’s a 5% chance they’ll survive (when someone calls an end to the “experiment” or whatever), and getting out of the structure means a 10% chance they will, but the movie is structured more like it’s 0% and 100%, like if only they find their way through the maze that all will be fine.

Also, the movie provides very little in the way of “answers.” How much you like or dislike that is going to be largely a function of your taste in such stories. I freely admit I’m a simpleton in that regard, and I almost always would like to have as many as possible of the mysteries resolved when I complete a movie or book, but I know a lot of other people prefer open-ended stuff.

But if you’re wanting to know who put them in this place, why, where it’s located, whether any of them do indeed make it out to safety, etc., you’ll find a lot more of that left unresolved than resolved. I find that type of (non-)ending mostly unsatisfactory.

As far as the psychological dynamics among the prisoners, as I say this has the potential to be quite interesting. It appears they may well have been put together not just due to their having complementary skills, but because they have a diverse range of values and worldviews—liberal, conservative, believer in authority and order, free spirit, optimist, cynic, etc. Maybe to figure out the riddles they’re faced with, they’re not just going to have to use this person’s athleticism and strength, and this person’s medical knowledge, and this person’s calculative skills, and so on, but somehow combine their psychological tendencies to give them some kind of group insight.

And, it’s interesting in that as things develop, you see that it’s not just that these multiple perspectives could help them succeed, but that they also constitute sources of weakness and division. In some ways, the pressures of the situation combine with their personalities and character traits to bring out the worst in them. The cynical become more cynical and hopeless, the authoritarian become more obsessed with doing things with military-style discipline and obedience, and so on, and their clashing styles cause increasing distrust and hostility among them.

It’s just that the script, the acting, never is up to par to really make this aspect of the film as good as it could be. The characters too often speak to each other in cringe-inducing movie clichés.

The way they call each other by their last names, and make snide or bitter passing comments, and reference what little they’ve found out about their respective lives (“I can see why your wife left you,” “That’s just the kind of wishful thinking I’d expect from a liberal like you”), manifests way too much familiarity and informality. It’s what I’d expect in a movie about a platoon of soldiers or a group of astronauts on a long mission, or I suppose even a family or a group of friends who’ve established relationships where they can push each other’s buttons, and various recurring annoyances and resentments have developed among them.

But here it just doesn’t have the ring of truth. Too often in this film I was shaking my head at the tone or content of the dialogue, skeptical that a group of strangers thrown into such an odd situation would interact in this manner.

I appreciate that the filmmaker wanted to make a science fiction film more about psychology than just a lot of dramatic music and running around and firing ray guns at each other, but in this case it was done by sacrificing a fair amount of psychological realism.

As far as the symbolic or metaphorical message of the movie, there’s a specific scene that conveys what I take to be the main point of the film, or maybe just the one that most spoke to me. One of the characters turns out to have had some (very small) role in constructing the mazelike structure of cubes, and to have some (very slight) amount of knowledge about it.

He insists that the efforts of the others to figure out what it’s all about are fundamentally misguided, because for all intents and purposes it’s about nothing. It’s here, and they’re here, not because of someone’s intent, not because of some grand plan, but just because projects take on a life of their own and need no justification, and everyone—including he himself—just does their little thing in their little part of the world that inadvertently moves it all forward in some way, and the human consequences just are what they are. There’s no “big picture” to be explained. It’s all haphazard.

Now on the one hand I love that point. It’s kind of like my reaction to a lot of “conspiracy theories.” In some cases they’re thinking they see more order and intent and simplicity than is really there. They see 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination or increased inner city drug availability as a part of a grand scheme by a nefarious group of folks manipulating things from behind the scenes.

And sometimes that may well be exactly what’s going on. There are indeed powerful people and groups doing evil things, sometimes more or less in secret, to intentionally bring about certain outcomes.

But I think far more often the things we see happening in the world aren’t a product of some specific person or group’s plan, but just the unintended consequences of an enormous and complex assortment of acts done by countless people, none of whom did what they did with the aim of bringing these consequences about.

Maybe the Bilderberg Group, or the Trilateral Commission, or “Mr. Big” or whomever is responsible for this or that, but I think far more often the culprit is the “invisible hand” of the market, or more broadly just the invisible hand of all human behavior, political, economic, or otherwise, and for that matter non-human causal factors, the totality of which is too numerous and complex and unintentional to pin on anyone.

So, yes, it’s a good point. The human race doesn’t spend X on wars and Y on education because there’s some “they” that’s stupid or nefarious enough to have decided that’s the way to go. It’s the collective outcome of a lot of individual (mostly self-interested) decisions and actions by people, none of whom were attempting to bring about that state of affairs.

The problem is, that general point makes zero sense in the context of this movie. It’s true, I’d say, about a lot of complex social phenomena, but I don’t see how it could be true here.

Enormous, secret, complicated prison structures don’t spring up as the unintended byproduct of other actions and decisions. People aren’t drugged and kidnapped from their homes and incarcerated in some bizarre human behavior experiment or whatever unintentionally.

Think of it this way: If a poverty-stricken rice farmer in some country wants to know “Who decided I deserve to suffer like this?” then it’s probably not an answerable question, because the declining fortunes of rice farmers in that country is likely the unintended consequence of countless economic and demographic and technological developments around the world. But if a bewildered European on D-Day wants to know “What the heck are all these soldiers doing here and where did they come from?” there’s an answer to that. Someone, or a bunch of someones, planned it and ordered it.

Imprisonment in this structure of cubes is like the D-Day example and not like the rice farmer example. They’re there because someone intentionally, consciously put them there for a reason.

The filmmaker wanted to say something important and interesting through metaphor, and succeeded, but at the cost of adding a character monologue that in the context of the non-metaphorical story itself is just silly and implausible.

My overall assessment is that Cube succeeds enough on enough levels to make it worth seeing. There are flaws holding it back from being an excellent movie—certain things the characters say and do that don’t add up, that aren’t plausible in the context of the story—but I’d say it’s a better quality, more intelligent movie than average for the science fiction genre.

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