Cube Zero

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/24/05 16:18:54

"Third chapters shouldn't be this clever, should they?"
3 stars (Just Average)

By the third movie, most horror series, especially the direct-to-video ones, have found themselves lost beyond rescue. Chances are you’ve seen enough terrible sequels in your lifetime that I don’t need to explain to you this argument. Which is what helps make “Cube Zero” such a pleasant surprise - not only has the “Cube” franchise managed to remain remarkably inventive and fresh throughout the trilogy, but it does so despite both a limited budget and, more importantly, a limited premise that seems to ward off any attempts at story expansion.

This is especially true when you consider “Cube 2: Hypercube” and its use of metaphysics. With the “Cube” idea expanded this far, what could the producers possibly do to expand the series any more? The answer: a prequel.

But first, a quick rundown for those unfamiliar with the “Cube” series. “Cube,” a film festival favorite that gained a solid cult following on video, is a sci-fi/horror number in which a group of strangers awaken in a mysterious cube-shaped room, which is connected to countless other cube-shaped rooms, some of which contain some rather nasty death traps. The idea is for the group to find their way out of the maze, while trying to figure out how they got in there in the first place. Nifty, Twilight Zone-ish stuff. “Hypercube,” a direct-to-video sequel, split fans of the original, as some liked but others hated the notion of a new Cube design that also featured issues of time and space as a means of repeating the original’s ideas without downright repeating them, if you follow me.

The biggest success of both films is how they took a very sparse movie set and not only made the budget work to the producers’ advantage (one set could be used for every room, as they all look alike), but, through crafty scripting, made the viewer forget about set limitations thanks to a plot that zipped along quite breathlessly.

Now we come to “Cube Zero,” which places us shortly before the events of the first movie, although that’s more to avoid any more of the time-space stuff of part two than it is to keep any continuity going. (The films work separately from each other, for the most part, so while it’s best to see the first two before visiting the third, you don’t need to.)

The plot is familiar: a group of strangers wake up in the Cube, etc., etc. Only this time, we get to see the behind the scenes goings-on at Cube headquarters, or whatever the hell you call it. Wynn (Zachary Bennett) and Dodd (David Huband) are the two guys stuck in a dark, forgotten room where they monitor the Cube and all who are in it. Dodd’s a by-the-book type, afraid of the consequences that come with speaking out against the highers-up; Wynn, a math and science genius, is a bit more willing to question his orders. And that sort of thinking allows him to show an interest in one of the Cube captives (Stephanie Moore), who turns out not to be the criminal he thought she was, but just a political activist who tried one time too many to stick it to the man.

The “Cube” series has always been quite smary in its leaving so much unsaid; despite the bits and pieces sprinkled throughout the first two films, we never really got to learn why the Cube was made, or by whom. And so all these revelations in “Cube Zero” sound at first to be too many unwanted answers - until it becomes clear that even learning what we do here, there’s still a whole world of questions left unanswered. The society responsible for the fear that grips the characters is only revealed in pieces so minute that we still walk away with only a vague notion, the gaps we’re free to fill in on our own. This is a movie that explains without actually explaining, and the notion of not knowing only makes things all the more intriguing. (There are some delicious almost-reveals, by the way: the newspaper offered by the government is “The Conformist;” we’re told that the Cube exists to “keep the world safe for democracy;” religion plays a major role in this totalitarian regime; people disappear from this society with such frequency that the control room of the Cube headquarters is filled wall floor-to-ceiling with files on the Cube victims. Now go and fill in the gaps on your own, the series seems to be telling us.)

Writer/director Ernie Barbarash does a fine job bouncing us back and forth between the tensions of Wynn’s monitor station and the living hell of inside the Cube. And talk about a knack for pacing - just when things start to settle in, he brings in a creepy outsider (Michael Riley) to shake things up. Riley’s character is so different than anything we’ve gotten before, and yet he fits in perfectly, becoming a great baddie and a fine addition to the trilogy.

“Cube Zero” keeps the franchise on track as a genuine treat for fans of intelligent science fiction, the kind that actually enjoys challenging its audience. And to keep things from being dull, the prequel stays true to the series by giving gore hounds what they want, too; the series’ premise allows for many a creative death scene. (The first one’s a real squeemer. Don’t try eating before or during the film. I speak from unfortunate experience.) At this pace, the producers of this franchise could keep going as long as they wished. Which, in this age of always-dying movie series, is a rare, noteworthy treat.

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