Room without a view

It must be math season in the film world. Recently, Darren Aronofsky's Pi hit Dallas' screens, and now we get Vincenzo Natali's Cube. The connection isn't merely in the movies' titles--if it were, I would have cited Sphere too--but in their stories. The plots of both films rely upon mathematical concepts--and both would have benefited from a little technical input from professionals.

Cube is essentially a glossy, beautifully designed 90-minute Twilight Zone episode. The production notes are honest enough to admit the influence, though they don't cite the specific Twilight Zone story that was the likely inspiration. "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," originally broadcast in December 1961, was about five (ostensibly) unrelated figures who wake up trapped in a tall, cylindrical prison, with a world of giants outside the enclosure. The ending was that most overused TZ twist--the point-of-view reversal. The giants are humans; the protagonists, toys. (Just how many variations on that one did TZ creator Rod Serling use?)

Cube opens with its most dazzling sequence, in which an unidentified man in a weird high-tech room is literally cubed: Like a hard-boiled egg, he is sliced into neat pieces by a grid of razor-sharp wires. With that unfortunate disposed of, we are introduced to the main characters: Rennes (Wayne Robson), a convict famous for his escapes; Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a cop; Leaven (Nicole deBoer), a math student; Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a doctor; and Worth (David Hewlett), an engineer. The five awaken in a 14-by-14-by-14-foot room, having apparently been kidnapped as part of some sadistic experiment. Because they can survive only for a few days without food and water, they band together to escape--an effort that involves solving the mathematical nature of their prison. The prison is a giant cube, constructed of smaller cubes that are attached in a manner similar to the units in a Rubik's Cube. Each cube has six hatches--one each in the floor, ceiling, and four walls. Each hatch leads to another room, identical except for its color.

It turns out that the group is not so randomly chosen as it first appears: Each person--including latecomer Kazan, an autistic savant played by Andrew Miller--brings a different necessary skill to their attempts at escape. Figuring the correct path out of this three-dimensional maze would be tough enough by itself, but the task is complicated by lethal booby traps that have been placed in many of the rooms. It falls primarily upon Leaven, a math prodigy, to interpret and decode the numbers stamped on the hatchways. The mathematical puzzle doesn't turn out to be especially intriguing, nor does it always make sense. Part of the solution involves Leaven checking for prime numbers; you don't have to be a math major to know that three-digit numbers ending in 2, 4, 5, 6, and 8 are never prime, but Leaven, the whiz, spends several seconds checking out each such number before deciding that, by golly, they're not. (Another part of the solution is either badly explained or simply a bunch of mumbo jumbo.)

Even if the mathematical puzzle were more intriguing, it wouldn't be sufficient to sustain an hour and a half movie. Director and co-writer Natali understands this, so he sets up a web of conflict among the "prisoners," filled with deceits, confessions, and revelations. This is an old dramatic device that's been used innumerable times, from Sutton Vane's supernatural melodrama Outward Bound to Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. Natali, however, is not at his best with the character interactions: The revelations are mostly predictable, the longer scenes involving dialogue too familiar to hold our attention. That said, Natali and his collaborators deserve praise on a number of fronts: The film's design and cinematography are exceedingly clever, particularly when you realize how adeptly they mask a small budget. The filmmakers poured their resources into one room, which could then be quickly refitted with gels of different colors to represent each of the other rooms. Whatever its dramatic failings, Cube proves that, with imagination, it's possible to make a film that looks great, even with minimal cash.

Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Andre Bijelic, Natali, and Graeme Manson. Starring Maurice Dean Wint, Nicole deBoer, Nicky Guadagni, David Hewlett, Andrew Miller, and Wayne Robson. Opens Friday.

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