Saturday, 28 January 2017

Five Things I Hate About Cube

A few weeks ago I was reading a list online. Something along the lines of "ten most gruesome deaths in cinema," I think. I can't remember. It's not important. The important thing is, one of the deaths was from the movie Cube. Cube is a 1997 drama/mystery/sci-fi film (says IMDB) about a giant murdering Rubik's cube and I hate it with a deep and abiding passion. Most of the time it doesn't really affect me day-to-day, but then I read something about it randomly on an online list and it reminds me that it exists and I hate it, and then I tweet about it, and lovely Madeline Franklin asks me why I hate it and I tell her I'm going to write her a freaking essay about it, and here we are.

You bastard.

Let's start with some background. In Cube, we find ourselves watching as six unbearable people wake up to find themselves mysteriously whisked away from their lives to the cube. At first it seems they're just trapped in this one room, but they quickly learn their room is part of an interconnecting series of rooms (or "cubes"), most of which are filled with deadly, deadly traps. Their mission is to escape, which they attempt to do using maths (badly).

There, that's the basic premise. I can't remember where I first saw it, but I was at sixth form and friends with a psychology student who insisted it was an elegant study of the way people's civilised fronts collapse under extreme pressure. I guess that doesn't sound too bad, on reflection. Maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to enjoy your elegant social breakdown movies, Jenny. Maybe I'm the problem.

But I'm not. And here are five reasons why.

1. It's pretentious.

Honestly, I'm not a sophisticated film-watcher. But that's fine, because Cube is not sophisticated in my opinion, it's bullshit and pretentious. Each of the characters is named after a famous prison get it because they're imprisoned. Clever. I could probably deal with that by itself, but the plot is pure high-concept fluff with no depth whatsoever. Giant murder cube, built by ~someone~ for ~reasons that are never revealed~ because ~who even knows?~ We never find out, really, who built the cube or why. One of the prisoners, Worth, turns out to have been involved in the design, but doesn't actually know what he was designing or why or who for, because apparently when shadowy agencies ask you to design giant murder cubes, you don't worry about the purpose of said murder cube. Just collect your paycheck, Worth.

We never find out why these people have been chosen. I mean, Quentin's a dick (see point two), but none of them appear to be bad people. They were snatched for no reason by forces that are never revealed for a purpose that is never revealed. Maybe this is actually a clever commentary on how life is random and there's no underlying cosmic order to anything, or maybe the writers just couldn't think of a good explanation. You decide!

Again, I'm not a sophisticated film-watcher. I like superheroes and explosions and fantasy escapism. But my favourite films have more to them than just "because reasons" and I don't think that's too high a bar to clear. Telling me the cube just exists, that people are just kidnapped and put in it just because - that's not clever storytelling. We're expecting to overlook it because omg death traps! In cubes! I guess it's not dissimilar from The Human Centipede* where we're expected to just accept that Dr Whatisface is kidnapping people and sewing them together because he's just that wacky, you guys.

Step 1: sew people together
Step 2: ???
Step 3: ???????????????

High-concepts are fine, but they need to be backed up with solid storytelling and characters I can invest in. Which brings me to point two...

2. I fucking hate everyone in it.

Yes, all of them. The mathematical genius schoolgirl. The conspiracy theorist doctor. The angry cop. The other guys. This is purely subjective, of course, but if all of them were drowning and I only had time to save one, I'd make a sandwich.

Some of this is down to the acting, which is about as good as you can expect for cheaply-made 90s pretentious bullshit film. The dialogue doesn't help. For example:

Holloway: I think we have to ask the big questions! What does it want? What is it thinking?

It's a cube, lady! It's not thinking at all! That's...that's kind of the deal with rooms, even murder rooms.

Leaven: Give us the boot you pig!
Quentin: You don't want the boot!

What? What? I guess there's only so much even the best actor can do with "you don't want the boot." Beyond the bad acting and dialogue, these characters are not likable. Maybe they're not meant to be. Maybe we're meant to root for their grim deaths like bloodthirsty barbarians, thus proving ultimately that we, the viewers, are the real ones collapsing under the weight of our self-imposed civility. I don't know. Fuck them all. I especially hate the cop.


Partly because he's portrayed as an aggressive bully, so probably I'm at least meant to hate him, but also because "angry black man" wasn't a great look in 1997, or ever, in fact, especially in film where the characterisations are paper-thin anyway. Plus he gets a bit rapey/religious at the end.

When I watch a film I want someone to root for. Equally, I want someone for them to overcome. I can't get passionate about paper tigers stuck in a soulless death trap. Where's the bad guy for me to hate? I can't hate a cube! It's a cube. It's got no motivations. And I can't hate whoever's behind the cube because I don't even know if they fucking exist.

3. There's no resolution.

For the record, I haven't seen either of the sequels to Cube and I never will. So I accept that maybe there are some revelations I've missed out on. But as a standalone piece, there is no resolution to Cube.

The basic rules of storytelling, as I was taught are: establish the status quo > disrupt it > resolve it.

A resolution doesn't necessarily have to tie everything up neatly - and I believe there is a strong case sometimes for giving readers/viewers an ambiguous ending. However, I also believe that you have to give readers/viewers the opportunity to extrapolate a reasonable ending from the material presented. I don't believe Cube does that. Theories as to the "why" of the cube range from aliens to the government to super-villain, but no compelling evidence is dropped for any of these, and actually neither the characters nor the film itself really care because look at these murder rooms, dammit. Worth's story pushes us towards "the government probably did it" but he doesn't really know and there are no clues within the cube to help the viewers out.

The film ends with everyone dead except Kazan, an idiot savant, who walks into a bright light.

That's...that's it. He walks into a bright light and the film ends. That's it, that's the whole fucking film after I wasted all that fucking time watching these horrible people be horrible to each other in this horrible cube, that's all I fucking get. We don't see where he goes. We don't know if he's even going into another murder room or out of the cube. We get nothing. Nothing to draw even a speculative conclusion with. Fuck that film. That's deeply unsatisfying and it doesn't resolve anything.

4. It's full of botches.

Leaven wears glasses that are cracked at the start of the film and magically repair themselves throughout, then break again, then fix themselves again.

Quentin brutally beats Worth about the face with a boot, leaving him apparently close to death but also sporting just the most tasteful and delicate of wounds. I would show you a picture, but googling "Worth Cube movie" just gets me a lot of info about Ice Cube and his net worth. Trust me, Worth doesn't look like he's been pummeled by a maniac with a boot.

Those are continuity goofs, which happen, and probably aren't worth hating a film for. But the maths. The maths is bad. And a huge portion of this film depends on the maths being right, because it's what (potentially) can save our horrible cast. Briefly, each doorway in each murder room is inscribed with a set of numbers. Mathematical genius Leaven works out that these numbers may indicate which rooms are trapped, theorising that prime numbers equal trapped rooms. Later she realises it's actually powers of prime numbers that indicate traps, and luckily Kazan can work those out in his head because the plot requires it. Huzzahs!

Unfortunately, Kazan (or rather the writers) actually make several miscalculations, such as saying 462 has three prime factors when it has four, for example. Leaven, our alleged mathematical genius also makes some errors which would be fine if they were supposed to be errors, but they're not treated or flagged as such, and the whole fucking plot of this stupid fucking film hinges on prime numbers and powers of primes and these two characters knowing how to calculate them so why didn't the writers check the fucking maths?

Also there's one scene where you can see some staging equipment, but I don't want to be petty.

5. It's ultimately nihilistic.

Everyone dies at the end. Kazan might live, but we don't know because the stupid film doesn't end properly, but I think we can assume nothing good awaits him. I mean, it's either aliens or some shady humans who think nothing of kidnapping innocent people and putting them in the cube for no reason.

Nothing is revealed. Not the nature of the cube, not the builders, not the purpose.

Everything is shit. That's the lesson of this film. That you can be good, bad, bland, whatever, and it doesn't matter how you're living your life, you can still end up dead in the cube and unless you're a mathematical genius, you'll die, and even if you are a mathematical genius you'll still die, because fuck you. You can be kind or cruel, you can work together or strike out alone, and ultimately it's all futile because the murder cube will murder you. You will learn nothing. You will not develop as a person, except possibly into a worse person. The bad guys will win, assuming there are bad guys. There might not be. We don't know! These characters may just be the victims of a cold, uncaring universe where nothing they do matters because nothing anyone does matters. Maybe I should like that, because I love HP Lovecraft, but at least he gave us Cthulhu:



All Cube gave me was a deep-rooted anger problem. Then again, it's been over a decade since I last watched the stupid film and I'm still talking about it, so maybe...maybe it achieved something?




*Now there's a comparison I never thought I'd make.

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