The independent film was made in Canada and released in 1997.TWITTER/KEJROLL

A man wakes up in a cold, empty cube. Each wall, as well as the floor and ceiling, are identical — each sporting the same mysterious, alien pattern and each with a hatch at its centre. All is quiet except for the faint sound of wind outside. Dazed and confused, the man stands up and approaches one of the hatches on the wall. He opens it, and looking through, sees another room identical to the one he’s in, only different in colour. He repeats this process a few more times before deciding to step through one. He hops down, and after taking a few steps, is suddenly cut into a hundred pieces by a trap that was hanging from the ceiling.

‘It also reinforces the existential angst that many now feel towards the powers that be and capitalism due to the pandemic.’

This is the nightmare scenario that Cube drops its viewers into with its opening scene, and for the next ninety minutes, imprisons them alongside the film’s protagonists in an endless maze of cubes. Prior to 2020, a viewing of Cube was already a fairly uncomfortable, claustrophobic experience, but watching it in light of the events of the past year gives it an eerie familiarity. It aligns not only with the feeling of being trapped in identical-looking rooms, but also reinforces the existential angst that many now feel towards the powers that be and capitalism due to the pandemic, via the film’s social and political commentaries.

Following its release in 1997, Cube was not particularly successful. It was a low-budget, independent sci-fi horror film from Canada that grossed just under $9 million in the box office worldwide. However, thanks to on-demand streaming and social media, Cube has managed to gain a cult following in recent years, and its brilliance has thankfully been spread to a lot more people. Its impact has also extended to the film industry itself, effectively acting as the pioneer of the escape room genre, with its themes and premise being reproduced in equally interesting films like Exam (2009), Circle (2015) and most famously, Saw (2004).

The film has been interpreted as more of a social and economic commentary rather than a superficial horror feature. TWITTER/Y2JOHN84

Cube’s premise is really quite simple: six strangers, who have never met before and have no recollection of how they got there, have to try and escape an endless maze of cubic rooms, many of which are full of traps. However, it soon becomes apparent that the real danger in the Cube is themselves, and the conflicts and tensions they create.

The prevailing theme, or should I say root, of Cube is therefore — unsurprisingly — claustrophobia. It’s an omnipresent force that governs every shot and frame of the film, and makes itself known from the very beginning. For example, as the core protagonists are introduced, it quickly becomes apparent that all of them are dressed in prisoners’ jumpsuits and are all named after famous prisons, each of which corresponds to their personality traits. For example, the brutish and violent Quentin is named after San Quentin Prison, a facility notorious for its housing of violent criminals and practice of the death penalty. Meanwhile Kazan, a character with an intellectual disability, is named after the Kazan Prison Mental Hospital in Russia, which housed mentally handicapped offenders.

The limited set reinforces the film's theme of claustrophobia. TWITTER/Y2JOHN84

This effect extends to the set design as well. Due to its low budget, Cube had to be set in a single, fourteen cubic foot room, which conveniently worked in the film’s favour. When the characters moved from one room to the next on screen, it would seem like they’d never really escaped the last room at all — an illusion sold by this being the reality behind the scenes. Furthermore, the constant use of cinematic closeups greatly aids in quite literally boxing the characters in and giving the viewer an uncomfortably intimate relationship with them. Very rarely are wide shots used during the film, as doing so would give both the characters and the viewers space to breathe.

Cinematography aside, the social and political commentaries of Cube add a level of depth and, for many, despair, to its claustrophobic themes. While there are countless ways to read Cube, a popular interpretation is that the film is an elaborate metaphor for the endless rat race of capitalism, in which only a few escape while most die within its emotionless and indifferent walls. Kazan, a member of the group with an intellectual disability, can be viewed as an extension of this idea. The fact he is largely ignored and disregarded by the other characters until he proves useful to their escape attempt can be seen as a critique of the utilitarian nature of capitalism; that people are only valued if they serve a purpose to the system, rather than having intrinsic value as humans.

Featuring a variety of characters, the film has been viewed as the manifestation of capitalism's 'rat race'.TWITTER/Y2JOHN84

Another way the film can be viewed is as a critique of the powers that be in society and the Universe. Many in the group believe the Cube is a calculated experiment; that Big Brother, be that a government or corporation, created it and are watching them. Meanwhile Worth, the nihilist of the group, believes there is no one watching and no one’s in control. While the scale and sophistication of the Cube may cast the illusion of it having some grand designer, he believes it’s just a pointless and random product of bureaucracy. While these interpretations are not going to resonate with everyone, they are certainly interesting to consider, and add a new dimension to the obvious sources of claustrophobia that dominate the film, especially in light of the pandemic.

By no means is Cube without flaw — the acting is nothing to write home about and the depiction of Kazan, a character with an intellectual disability, has been criticised for being outdated and offensive by modern standards. However, I feel these flaws only slightly detract from the overall brilliance of the film. Cube truly is a claustrophobic masterpiece, which is more relevant and relatable today than ever before. It is a film that not only makes you feel trapped during its run time, but will perhaps make you realise you always have and always will be.


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