This summer, NBC has tried to fill its programming schedule with a show called “Persons Unknown” created by Christopher McQuarrie who wrote the screenplay for 1995’s “The Usual Suspects” and next spring’s “The Tourist” starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. The show is about a group of seven strangers who wake up trapped in a small, non-descript town with no idea why they are there or who abducted them. The strangers have no relation to one another and are constantly under surveillance by cameras that capture their every move. The show has performed poorly in the ratings and NBC recently moved the show from Monday nights to Saturday nights.
The concept of the show is strikingly similar to a film that was released in 1997 called “Cube,” written and directed by Vincenzo Natali who was the filmmaker behind this summer’s “Splice.” The film, which was a clear influence on the “Saw” series, is also about seven strangers who wake up trapped. These characters, though, are held captive in cubic cells that connect to one another and are identical in size and appearance. Slowly, the characters realize that each cube is one in a seemingly infinite number of cubes that re-arrange themselves seemingly at random. Some cubes are laced with deadly traps indicated by codes that the prisoners desperately try to decipher.
Why is “Cube” such a wonderful film? The main reason is Natali’s intelligent screenplay and wonderful skills as a director. The characters are constantly faced with the possibility of death which brings out each person’s true nature. The characters are forced to keep moving through the rooms without any guarantee that there is an escape or even a point to the situation in which they find themselves.
The other outstanding quality of the film is the ambiguity with which Natali embodies the Cube. The characters have no idea if anyone is watching them or if they are left alone with their own instinct for survival. Many theories are opined by the different prisoners about the architects or designers of the Cube (the government, terrorists, extraterrestrials) but the viewer is never given a clear answer as to who or what built the Cube and put the events in motion. This is not for lack of creativity on the director’s part (Natali actually wrote and filmed a follow-up of sorts to the movie but destroyed the only copy after realizing how much it detracted from the magic of the original film). Natali is very careful to give evidence both for and against any or all of the possible identities of those responsible, but leaves the answer always just beyond the viewer’s grasp allowing for plenty of dialogue and debate among fans of the film.
The action was filmed inside a single set that measured 14x14x14 and whose lighting scheme changes when the characters are supposed to be entering a new cube. Natali filmed the majority of the movie using handheld cameras and close-up shots which increases the feeling of claustrophobia for the viewer. Each character is named after a well-known prison (Leaven, Worth, Quentin, etc.) which reinforces the idea of being trapped either wrongfully or for just reason. The characters try desperately to figure why they were selected for the Cube but are never able to fully realize what connection they have to their prison or one another.
Though the movie spawned a sequel, “Cube 2: Hypercube,” and a prequel, “Cube Zero,” neither could come close to the spectacular achievement of Natali’s original production. The film is a superb exercise in guerilla filmmaking that can work both as a straightforward thriller and as a meditative work that invokes philosophical, religious and political thought.