strips down the complexity in the labyrinth of everyday life and instead gives you the existential quagmire of the cube.
Cube, a sci-fi/horror film from 1997 directed by Vincenzo Natali, is the story of seven individuals trapped inside a labyrinth composed of interlocking cube rooms. Their common goal is to somehow make some sense out of the situation that they’ve obliviously woken up in. And, of course, to find some sort of way out. Around every corner there are traps. Blowtorches and acid sprayers come out of the walls. Spikes and wires surround and entangle. And human-size cheese slicers render one unlucky character into tiny bits that slowly fall apart (the first place I can remember seeing this effect.)
Those lucky enough—or perhaps unlucky enough—to find each other, end up converging upon one room in the cube (which we later learn is one among several thousand). As the group of survivors/subjects make their way from room to room, each new challenge reveals more of their personality. Among the characters are David Worth (the architect/nihilist), Quentin (the cop/alpha male), Helen Holloway (the doctor/whistle blower), Joan Leaven (the math student/disaffected youth), and Kazan (the autistic man/idiot savant).
When put to the existential question the cube/life demands of us, “why are we here?” each have different opinions. Quentin argues that they are at there because of the whim of a psychopath, a criminal billionaire akin to a .007 villain with a thirst for violence and suffering. He is the voice of mass culture, the moral majority. “Keep your head down, just look at what’s in front of you,” he tells the others.
Helen Holloway thinks the Cube is the work of the government, the Man, corporations, the military industrial complex, in a word “the machine.” She is the voice of the counterculture, the revolutionary. “My amethyst!” she cries, when she learns they have been stripped of their possessions.
David Worth thinks that there is no reason. As he puts it, it’s a “headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan.” He is the absurdist and nihilist, speaking only for himself.
The one remaining main character, Joan Leaven, feels like it is a nightmare, a bad dream, or perhaps hell. She is the existentialist and she tells us that she’s always felt guilt for the condition the world is in. “If you’re looking for someone to blame,” she says “throw a rock.”
These four characters represent the edges of a square. They are four cornerstone personality types that make up the modern world, each hopelessly dependent upon the others. Quentin the cop can delegate tasks, can use his physical strength, and can spot clues. But without the mathematical help of Leaven he’s lost. Leaven conversely is smart and inventive, but she is emotionally delicate, physically weak, and subordinate. She’s the perfect compliment to Quentin’s authoritative personality. Worth is the only one with any knowledge of the cube’s design, but he lacks the motivation to use it, and mocks the despair of the others. Holloway the doctor has enough motherly instinct to protect and nurse the others, but is ignorant of the workings of the cube.
They realize that if anyone is going to survive, they will have to stay together. This realization is made early in the movie when the arrogant individualist, Rennes, an expert escape artist, is sprayed in the face by acid jets. “You’ve got to save yourselves for yourselves,” he ironically preaches to the others moments before his death.
Three characters enter, are brought into a large room they cannot leave, and must somehow learn to deal with each other. They soon learn the intelligent design of the place. They’ve been strategically put there together by god or devil to slowly become each others torturers. They completely detest each other, yet they are inseparable. They need each other. This is the story No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre, in which he has his character Garçon make the famous exclamation, “hell is other people.” At the end of the story the characters are allowed to leave their hell and be alone, but they realize that they are dependent upon each other.
Worth, near the end of Cube, in the room that leads to the outside, sits down in defeat and refuses to leave; he realizes that there is nothing of worth for him out there and the appropriate punishment for himself for having taken part in the building of the cube would be to remain in the cube and let it kill him. Similarly, Garçon, when the door is opened for him to leave, realizes his deficit of bravery. He was a pacifist during war time, and retreated instead of fighting. The only way to convince himself that he isn’t a coward is to convince his personal hell, Inez, that he is courageous. So he stays and gives himself to his hell.
Worth, whose sardonic humor and apathy are hated by the others is called out by Quentin to justify himself to the others, to show the others his “worth.” In this scene all of those that remain, excluding Kazan, who hasn’t been found yet, are asked to make the same justification. The justifications criss-cross between justifying their lives inside and outside of the Cube. But how they justify themselves in the outside world won’t hold up in Cube where their roles and responsibilities are all but absent. In this sense the Cube asks of them the same existential question asked by Sartre and others. In the absence of gods and morals, how can man justify his existence? What are you worth in the Cube?
The Cube itself is a machine, set into motion sometime before they were placed there, and operating under the laws of geometry. To leave, to be saved from the machine, a knowledge of math is essential.
Kazan enters the equation well into the movie and is able because of his natural talents to lead the rest of the group—nearly—to salvation. His ability—to find the factors of large numbers in his head—is so specific that he must have been sent by someone or something to test whether or not the characters could put up with him long enough to gain his invaluable wisdom.
In the end only Kazan is saved from the cube. He pauses, not knowing whether to go back to the cube or head forward into a blinding white light; at the very end we see him walking into the light. If it’s not already painfully obvious, Kazan is the Christ figure. Similar to Neo in The Matrix, he is “the one.” Except the religion here is not one of sin and redemption or guilt and confession. The religion here is numbers, specifically geometry. It has its laws and its commandments and those who learn and abide by them are steered toward salvation.
Worth argues that builders of the Cube are all just “specialists working on small details” and no one really knows or grasps the master plan. In Worth’s model everyone is cluelessly minding their lot while the world as a whole grows more out of control. As a metaphor for twentieth-century technology the Cube is a marvel. It is a wonder yet it has no respect for human life—it seems to have only contempt for it.
Everyone points fingers as to why it exists; no one but Worth accepts any blame. He admits not only to some responsibility for the existence of the Cube, but to the state of the world outside of it. He confesses that he is part of a system that creates technological monsters such as the Cube, but then is powerless to stop them. After he’s seen the violent events unfold in the Cube he is awakened to the reflection it casts on the world as whole. Why leave the cube when all that’s outside of it is “boundless human stupidity”?
Interestingly, the room that takes our characters to the bridge that leads to the exit is the room where they all met, suggesting something about the transcendent nature of innocence. Before they left on their fractured journey through the rooms of the Cube they were already in the best possible position. The film hits this idea again as Kazan is the only one able to escape.
Throughout Cube we see that Kazan’s personality is limited to a love of gumdrops and a fear of red rooms. He transcends the situation through his simplicity. One couldn’t imagine Kazan struggling with a mortgage or fighting with a spouse. His simplicity is such that he can’t be drawn into the relatively petty struggles that plague the others from the beginning. Their fractured, specialist personalities are like the cube itself, complicating and confusing their escape. Only Kazan’s innocence can transcend them both.
It occurs to me that this same sort of idea can be found in John Hughes’ 1994 comedy horror, Baby’s Day Out.
I’m fairly certain I’ve only touched the surface here. There’s much more to Cube to be dug up, and it almost begs you to deconstruct its metaphorical meanings while it deconstructs itself mathematically in front of you. Sadly, most people I ask have never seen this movie. I’m afraid on store shelves it comes off looking more like B-movie horror flick than indie sci-fi mindbender.
Yet like the best horror, its disturbance comes not from scary make-up and blood-soaked machetes, but from the darkest parts of the human psyche. Most of us live our lives fairly certain that neither zombies nor werewolves are going to come after us. And we’re fairly secure in thinking that we’re far from the reaches of psychotic killers. None of us, though, can escape the frightening questions the Cube asks us, questions about the void of our inner selves, of our loneliness and despair, of accepting responsibility for our lives, and about our psychological need for other people. It’s a horror more akin to repeating a word till you forget its meaning, or staring into the mirror until you can’t recognize your own face.