Spoilers for the 1997 movie “Cube,” which as I say in the title, has a bad ending. Also, we’re talking about a psychological horror movie here, so expect a little gore.
Picture this: Five strangers wake up in a strange room with no memory of how they got there. The room is shaped like a cube, and each wall has a door leading to another cube-shaped room. Quickly, as they try to escape, they realize that some rooms have deadly traps. In addition to avoiding the trapped rooms, they only have about three days before they all die of dehydration. Only by working together can they solve the mystery of the Cube. By working together, the captives make an important discovery. Every door in the Cube is marked with a 9-digit code, showing that each room is unique and has a place within a larger structure. Questions plague the strangers, like why they were selected for this trial and the purpose of this labyrinth. Though the most important question hangs heavily over their heads: can they get out of the Cube before it’s too late?
The characters are as follows:
– Quentin, an assertive police officer, set up to be the film’s protagonist
– Holloway, a single doctor and conspiracy theorist in her late 40s
– Worth, an antagonistic office worker (who later reveals that he designed the outer shell of the Cube)
– Leaven, a young math student who does 90% of the work getting everyone through the maze
– Rennes or “The Wren,” a prison escapee who says a few cool things and then dies horrifically
– Kazan, an intellectually disabled man who joins the group halfway through the film
“Cube” was written and directed by Vincenzo Natali, and I was continuously impressed with the direction of the script. The story of “Cube” is plagued with unknowns: who are these people, what is the Cube, why does it exist, and why are they there? These are conversations that the characters have while working together to avoid deadly traps. Natali’s script is surprisingly subversive. For example, the film’s posters and trailers suggest that Alderson, the character from the first scene, would be the protagonist. However, as we clearly saw, Alderson was diced into human sashimi within five minutes of the movie’s run time. Frankly, I think the opening scene is perfect. Sans dialogue, it immediately sets the film’s tone and makes us curious for more. We see this man look into several identical-looking rooms. He finally decides to go into one room, but he learns that it’s trapped too late. Through Alderson’s fatal error, we learn that there are no second chances in the Cube.
The other strength of the script is the characters. Each character within the film has their own motive, interests, and backstory that inform their actions and interactions with other characters. I like all of the characters, but I have to give special consideration to Worth, played expertly by David Hewlett. Worth is crude, pessimistic, and seems to be set up to be the film’s antagonist. Until midway through the film, he makes a dramatic announcement: he reveals that he designed the hollow outer shell containing the Cube. Once he can unburden himself, Worth begins to transform into a thoughtful, caring, heroic person. Although the character seems to be plagued with a case of 1990’s cynicism, as someone with depression, I connected with Worth’s pain.
The film’s minimalist set is cleverly designed. Even though the movie feels like it exists within a massive labyrinth, the film creators actually only made one Cube set for filming purposes. To create the effect of being in multiple rooms, the creators made a point to change the room’s lighting and employ creative camera angles to keep the film visually fresh. It’s an impressive bit of film-making, and when I watch “Cube,” I never feel claustrophobic, despite the tightness of the set. This minimalism also applies to the costumes. Every character is seen wearing the same standard-issue gray prison uniform, including the female characters. The only difference is that Leaven is allowed her glasses – a sign that she is the key to solving the Cube?
I like horror movies. When done well, they can be deep and reflective and stay with you long after the running time is over. But there are tropes of the genre that I dislike. The trope I’m thinking of is similar to the “Final Girl,” which refers to the last girl/woman alive who confronts the killer. I’m not sure if this trope has a name, so for now, I’ll call it, “And Then There Was One.” The trope insists that only one person can survive the movie, no matter how impractical, illogical, or disappointing the outcome.
Unfortunately, “Cube” is a wonderful movie that falls victim to this trope. Any warmth I felt was crushed within the last scene of the film. As much as I loved the positive transformation in Worth’s character, I was equally enthralled by the villainization of Quentin. Quentin’s bravery and assertiveness were what the group needed to find the courage to try and solve the Cube’s mystery. However, we soon see that assertiveness is a mask for an abusive rage, and as their time within the Cube lengthens, Quentin begins to lose his mind. He turns on his fellow captives, becoming increasingly volatile until he cruelly murders Holloway.
I would argue that Holloway was the moral compass of the group. When the group encounters Kazan, they immediately write him off as a dangerous burden and are content to leave him behind. Holloway is the one that insists they bring him along, despite the risks, because she sees in the intrinsic humanness in him. The story eventually reveals that Kazan is a human calculator with phenomenal mathematical abilities – a gift that is essential to the group’s survival. Holloway had no way of knowing that Kazan was a secret super genius, but her compassion for Kazan led to their survival. Much of the plot is dependent on the reveal that Kazan is a brilliant calculator, but I appreciate that Holloway treated him with kindness simply because he was a person.
After Holloway is murdered, the characters seem lost. It is up to Worth to stand up as Holloway’s moral replacement, taking an interest in Kazan and standing up to Quentin. During a pivotal scene near the end of the film, Worth holds off Quentin so that Leaven and Kazan can plot their way quickly through the maze. Then, Worth cleverly tricks Quentin into falling through an open door into the room below. Quentin seems defeated.
With Quentin taken care of, Worth, Leaven, and Kazan can make their way to the final room. They open the door, and the sunlight streams in. It’s the first natural light Worth and Leaven have seen in days. Their faces are gaunt and their eyes haunted, but the light brings so much hope. In those last few moments, Worth realizes a terrible truth: he has nothing to live for in the outside world. He sinks to the floor, ready to give in to despair when Leaven manages to inspire some hope in him. The three escape and live happily ever after.
No, of course, they don’t. This is a horror movie, and it is compelled to follow the awful, “And Then There Was One” trope. Quentin magically survives falling through the trap door and smashing his head. Despite having no mathematical abilities, he safely navigates the trapped rooms and stalks Worth, Leaven, and Kazan. Then Quentin stabs Leaven with a door handle and gets into a bloody fight with Worth. Kazan escapes, but Worth uses what little strength he has left to trap Quentin between the shifting walls of the Cube. Quentin’s body is crushed, and all that remains of him is a grisly smear of blood on the wall. Worth succumbs to his injuries and collapses next to Leaven. Their room plummets to its next coordination at the bottom of the Cube.
I feel like my dislike for the ending should be obvious. In a film smart enough to have a math consultant on hand, it was hugely disappointing to end it with a Diabolus ex Machina. It makes no logical sense that Quentin could avoid the trapped rooms and follow them. (Unless – I don’t know, maybe Worth left a blood trail to follow considering how injured he was by the film’s end, but I doubt it). I’ve said what the film does well, but I’ll restate it: it does a good job of establishing characters. Even though Quentin is the villain, his leadership was necessary and welcome at the story’s beginning. Although he lacked Leaven’s impressive mathematical abilities or the Wren’s resilience, he was brave and oozed determined positivity. This allowed him to unite the group in their mission to transverse the maze. However, as he becomes angrier and more resentful, he alienates the group.
I think a much more fitting ending would be as follows: Worth tricks Quentin, who falls and injures himself on the cold metal floor of the room. Leaven, Worth, and Kazan make their escape, or they don’t. Leaven may make a mistake after two mentally exhausting days inside the Cube. Maybe Worth succumbs to his injuries just before they reach the escape. Or maybe Kazan tries to warn Worth and Leaven of something related to the Cube itself, but they cannot understand the intricacies of Kazan’s mind. So for much as I would like for all three to escape, I’m okay if they don’t.
I like that so many questions about the Cube go unanswered. Worth purports that the Cube has no purpose, and it exists just to exist, and I do like that explanation, but I think the story’s greatest strength is how the characters react to the mystery. I wanted the ending to make sense and stay in character. Setting Quentin up as the big bad guy undermines the story. Sure, Quentin sucked, but the movie’s true villain was the Cube. If all of the characters were to die at the movie’s end, it should be because of the Cube.
As for Quentin, I think the second-to-last scene of the movie should have shown him trying to navigate the Cube by himself. He is all alone, with only his rage and selfishness to keep him company. Maybe he picked up a thing or two from Leaven along the way, which makes him overly confident, as he can move into the next room with ease. He finds himself in a room he thinks is safe, but he misread the number marking the trapped room. Something gruesome proceeds to happen – maybe he’s trapped between moving rooms? I would even suggest there be a moment where Quentin shows remorse for his actions to remind us of his humanity.
There are many ways the film could have ended, and my suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, as I had grown attached to the characters, I wanted them all to live and escape, but that is unlikely given the danger of their situation. In my opinion, the best horror movies are tragedies in disguise. I’m all for an unhappy ending, so long as it makes sense in context. I struggle with downer, non-sensical endings.
I wonder if Natali had committed to Quentin murdering the rest of the captives in an early draft and felt compelled to continue the story that way. There’s also the possibility that the Cube is meant to be a Kafkaesque allegory for life or something. Therefore it was imperative that none of the characters, except for Kazan, escape. So there are a lot of ways to interpret the movie. Because despite the ending, “Cube” is still a great movie. Its twists and turns keep you engaged, and it makes you think, “what would I do if I was there?” And I still think about it, months after seeing it, because it was that good. It was a movie with something to say, created by people who cared about their story. I just think the ending needed a little workshopping.
So dear readers, what do you think? If you haven’t seen it, do you want to? Do you think you could beat Cube? Or do you disagree with me, and think the ending is perfect? Drop your thoughts below and we’ll talk.