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Friday, Nov. 25, 2005

Do the math . . . or you get diced up

Cube Zero

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ernie Barbarash
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

While it probably wasn't the first of its kind, the release of "Cube" (directed by Vincenzo Natali) in 1997 certainly did pave the way for a niche genre that can perhaps be described as "cerebral horror," such as the movie "Saw."

News photo
Stephanie Moore in "Cube Zero"

The premise of "Cube" was impressively simple: A group of people were trapped inside a giant maze of interlocking steel cubes, and most of these were rigged with a variety of murderous traps. Why these people had ended up there was unexplained (none of the characters could remember). The point was, without food or water, they had no option but to figure a way to get out, and fast. "Cube" was a macabre brain-teaser, in which one miscalculation could condemn the victim to a horrible, gory death. There were no monsters, psychopaths or deep dark pasts that revealed the source of violence. Instead, you got the logistics of algebra (hence, the cubes) combined with the logistics of survival.

As is the case with most sequels, "Cube 2: Hyper Cube" was a sore disappointment. But its screenwriter Ernie Barbarash was appointed to produce, direct and write the third and latest "Cube," not as another sequel, but a "prequel."

"Cube Zero" takes the story back to when the giant maze was activated and why. To Barbarash's credit, however, the explanations are cut to a minimum (something about the government conducting experiments on random participants) as the story concentrates once again on math, escape and survival. This time, though, the scenes are split between the events unfolding inside the cube chambers and an office that's monitoring it all on computer screens. The more the victims think up new ways to defy the booby traps, the more the office staff shake their heads in semisympathy: "Give it up. You'll never make it!"

We're ready to take their word for it; grainy gray tones (recalling despair and bureaucracy) define the visuals, and the whole thing looks as though it's been shot inside a drainpipe. This time the cubes are rusty, creaky and antiquated (in "Hyper Cube" it was all gleaming chrome and metal), with heavy metal doors that shut with nerve-wracking clangs just inches away from the victims' faces, and the effect is a medieval torture chamber with murder methods to match.

Trapped and desperate, the victims have no choice but to try a portal into an adjoining cube and if they're not diced up or gassed or impaled on the tips of 50 gleaming swords that come gliding out of the wall, proceed to the next and then the next until finally they reach an exit. Needless to say, the exit is an elusive shred of hope they keep clinging to as the body count mounts. The opening sequence shows an unfortunate victim crawling through a portal from one cube and dropping his boot into the next, as he mutters what must be the understatement of the year: "Oh God, I hate these cubes."

The boot is safe and so he goes down, only to be sprayed with narrow jet streams of what initially seems to be water, but turns out to be a deadly acid that sizzles him alive. "Now that is sick," observes the geeky Wynn (Zachary Bennett), one of two staff members who monitors the events inside the cube, does paperwork or otherwise plays chess with colleague Dodd (David Huband). Their office space is dark and windowless, connected to some unseen upstairs executive quarter via an elevator and there's an ancient, dial-up telephone they are forbidden to use.

"Do you remember what it was like outside?" asks Wynn to Dodd -- to which the latter replies with a curt "no." Gradually it becomes clear that while the two are (for the moment) alive and well, their circumstances are really no different from the victims in the cubes. They're even wearing the same prisonlike uniforms with their names stitched on, and the same black lace-up boots. And when they witness an ex-colleague burn to death on-screen, they realize that sooner or later, it's going to be their turn.

One of the recurring questions raised in the original "Cube" was what (or whom) people live for, and whether the answer will suffice to keep them alive, as opposed to a blind, animal instinct for survival. In "Cube Zero," only one of the victims has a definite answer to why she must live. This is Cassandra Raines (Stephanie Moore), who can recall that she has a daughter (though the memory of this daughter's name has been erased, along with most other things about Cassandra's identity).

Fired by the need to see her again, Cassandra takes charge and, using a hairpin and the black polish on her boot as pen and ink, she writes out various combinations of how the cubes interlock. Watching her on the screen, Wynn is moved by an urge to save her, or at least join her. It's not romance, so much as the need to feel something beyond the instinctive and become human. But the Cube has a way of quashing noble intentions at the drop of, err, a black lace-up boot.

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