By Mariko McDonald | May 4, 2009

Cube [1996] ^ Director: Vincenzo Natali ^ Writer: Vincenzo Natali, André Bijelic, Graeme Manson ^ Starring: Julian Richings, Maurice Dean Wint, David Hewlett, Wayne Robson, Nicole de Boer, Nicky Guardagni, Andrew Miller

While the first two films in this series were produced largely by private companies taking advantage of huge tax breaks created to boost Canadian film production, “Cube” was the product of the more conventional institutional method of film financing. Budget cuts and embarrassment over the cheap, tawdry output of the “tax shelter era” meant that the tax credit was cut from 100% in sixties and seventies to 50% in the eighties and then to considerably less. Domestic production was forced to rely largely on governmental and other grants, as it more or less does today.

The problems with relying on government money to make films are fairly obvious and unless your name happens to be David Cronenberg it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to get funding for what would be considered a “genre” picture in Canada. Writing grant proposals is a full-time job for many Canadian production companies, and the focus is always on proving your film worthy and “Canadian” enough to warrant funding. Movies that involve someone getting diced into neat little squares of flesh in the first 10 minutes need not apply.

While not actually government financed, “Cube” was funded almost entirely by the Feature Film Project, a sort of grant for first-time directors administered by the Canadian Film Center. Founded by proud Canuck Norman Jewison in 1988 as a way of giving back to his country of birth, the CFC is a sort of private film school for advanced training, somewhat similar to the AFI in the US. The FFP accepts submissions three times a year and all budgets are fixed, regardless of the scope of the project submitted. Natali, a graduate of the CFC with an acclaimed short (“Elevated”) to his name, was granted funding of $350,000 with one catch: his film needed to be completed in the timeframe specified, meaning he had 6 weeks to go from draft to done.

Although the idea for “Cube,” a sort of Kafkaeque survival horror film with shades of Beckett and a healthy dose of dark humour, had been brewing in Natali’s brain for some time, the rough draft of the script, which was co-written by his then roommate André Bijelic, was nowhere near ready. A third writer, Graeme Manson, was brought in to tighten things up, and mutual friend, David Provika, who holds a PhD in statistics, was engaged to handle the math. That’s right: it’s a mathematical horror film. Only in Canada, indeed.

The plot of the film is deceptively simple, and I feel it is fair to say it is a testament to Natali’s abilities as a filmmaker that it works as well as it does: 6 people wake up in a sterile room with no idea why they are there or how they got there in the first place. There are doors in the walls and the floor and ceiling that lead to other rooms. Some of the rooms contain deadly booby traps. Some do not. The six strangers decide to join forces to find a way out, although whether things are better or worse on the outside of the “cube” remains to be seen.

The first person we encounter in the cube is Alderson (the always fabulous Julian Richings), but unfortunately we do not get to know him for long before he falls victim to a razor wire grid that appears from nowhere to dice him into neat little, well… cubes. Having properly set the tone for what is to come, we move on to our real protagonists: Quentin, the righteous cop (Maurice Dean Wint); Worth, a cynical architect (perennial Natali favourite and childhood friend David Hewlett); comely student Leaven (Nicole de Boer); free clinic doctor Holloway (Nicky Guardagni); and legendary French escape artist Renn (Wayne Robson).

Eventually opting to band together, the group then moves from room to room, using Renn’s “boot test” to check for booby traps. When this proves not to be infallible, a new strategy is discovered when Leaven notices the numbers in the doorways of each room. A mathematical pattern is uncovered and the rag-tag puzzle solvers continue on their way, collecting another soul along the way, the mentally disabled Kazan (Andrew Miller). Quentin is initially opposed to bringing Kazan with them, fearing that he will slow them down, but begrudgingly relents when it is clear the others will not move without him.

Shot on a single set in Toronto, the film does occasionally feel a little “stagy,” being that it is essentially five actors trapped in a room together, but eye-catching hand-held camerawork and excellent pacing manage to keep the tension level high from start to finish. And although not all of the actors are completely convincing, their interplay, along with the fact that plot points are revealed through character development, keep things from feeling forced.

Natali has remained notoriously tight-lipped about what it all “means.” Likewise, his characters have different opinions, and they range from deranged millionaire killer to government conspiracy to meaningless bureaucratic f**k-up. But the ambiguity does not detract from the enjoyment of the film – in fact, it adds a theme of existentialism into the bloody puzzle. On the DVD commentary Natali reveals that the film is actually part of an informal trilogy of metaphysical puzzle films including the equally excellent comedy “Nothing” (also starring Hewlet), which I like to describe as “‘Waiting for Godot’ with excess fart jokes,” and the as-yet-unfilmed “Echo Beach.”

Being that the film is so hard to categorize, Natali had not counted on it being released outside of Canada, but a tour on the festival circuit lead to it being released in Japan and France to good reviews and respectable box office. Trimark Pictures then picked it up for US distribution, but after a disastrous test screening tried to get Natali to alter the rather downbeat ending. Knowing that this might be his one chance to have total control over a project as a director, Natali stuck to his guns and the film went on to gross $500,000 on only 24 screens in the US and amass a steady cult following which has only grown since the DVD release.

Two sequels were made: “Cube 2: Hypercube,” which boasts more gore and slicker effects and “Cube Zero,” which is actually a prequel. Natali was not involved with either film, and they apparently suffer from the predictable sequel syndrome of diminishing returns. Natali’s post-“Cube” films include the previously mentioned “Nothing” (seriously, check it out – it’s hilarious), the moderately successful “Cypher” with Lucy Liu and Jeremy Northam, the making of “Tideland” documentary “Getting Gilliam,” and the upcoming horror flick “Splice,” with Adrien Brody and Canada’s sweetheart Sarah Polley as renegade genetic scientists.

Although his interest in genre material has likely cost him the respect he deserves from the Canadian film establishment, Natali’s vision is unique and coherent enough to warrant auteur status. The box office success of “Cube” has allowed him to continue expanding his craft, and much like Cronenberg before him, his most interesting work is surely still to come.

Next week: Sex, the French-Canadian way: L’initiation

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Canadian government introduced new tax laws in an effort to boost domestic film production, which at that point was virtually non existent. The results were, sadly, not exactly what the politicos had intended, but instead a steady stream of cheap and often tawdry exploitation pics came rushing forth from “Hollywood North”. Canadian Classicks is a look at some of the gems and turds from the so called “tax shelter period”, as well as a place to celebrate (or shame) contemporary contributors to the Canadian exploitation legacy.

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