Ah, the boot. A cube prisoner’s best friend. Aside from the vast usefulness of something so minor, “Cube Zero” offers up your usual crop of bickering characters, a strong female lead, a psycho waiting to go off, and the usual standby of Red Shirts fated to be sliced, diced, burned, and acid to death. That’s a “Cube” movie for ya. Except this time around writer/director Ernie Barbarash (who also wrote the first sequel, “Hypercube”) has taken the series back to its beginning — or somewhere thereabouts.
This time around we get to see less of the cube itself, and more of what transpires behind the scenes. “Cube Zero” stars Zachary Bennett as Eric Wynn, one of two “operators” who monitors the happenings inside the cube, doing the bidding of unseen Powers That Be that communicates with them via a regal freight elevator and an old, locked away phone that’s never been used. Wynn works with the veteran Dodd (David Huband), monitoring the progress of the cube’s victims, all condemned prisoners who have consented (though they don’t remember) to participate in the cube “experiment” as an alternative to execution. Or so the operators have been told.
But all is not what it seems. Wynn discovers that one of the lab rats, Cassandra Rains (Stephanie Moore), was in fact a political dissident, and that her presence in the outside world had proved so disruptive to the ruling Government (it’s never mentioned just what Government that is, although some jingoistic dialogue seems to be insinuating Uncle Sam’s involvement), that she was tossed into the cube. Which makes you wonder: if Rains is such a political problem, why risk her escape (no matter how minimal) in the cube experiments instead of just killing her with a bullet to the head?
In any case, Wynn, who happens to be something of a genius, gets an attack of the conscience, and before Dodd knows it, his doubting prot’g’ has hopped on the freight elevator down to the cube systems, essentially inserting himself, and his prodigious knowledge of the cube, into the experiment. Can Wynn save Rains in time? Or will the odd Mr. Jax (Michael Riley), sent down from above, recapture Wynn first? Better yet, is this supposed to be a comedy or a horror-thriller?
All interesting questions, but the best answer is this: if you enjoyed the last two “Cube” movies, then you’ll feel right at home. True, there’s nothing overly original in “Cube Zero”, and despite the promise of a prequel, and in fact the movie does offer a lot of answers, there’s that unshakeable sense of d’jÃ vu. Introducing Wynn and the other operators marks the sequel’s best decision, but adding the wacky Jax and his two black suited underlings takes away some of the film’s gloomy disposition and makes “Cube Zero” something of a comedy, with a lot of “Brazil”-esque kooky bits and set scenery that seems to exist for the singular purpose of being kooky. (Why do the Powers That Be communicate using some kind of alien writing again?)
The fact is that there was just no place for the “Cube” franchise to go after “Hypercube”, the ending of which only further muddled the purpose of the cube. “Cube Zero” answers some questions, but continues to offer more pointless puzzles. For instance, what exactly can be gleaned from the cube experiments that justify such a major expense of Government resources and funds? This is, after all, a world where the makers of the cube can erase memories without effort and record people’s dreams on video. Is there anything worthwhile that can come from making people run around like lab rats in booby-trapped cubes?
Actually, I liked the “explanation” in the first “Cube” better, where it was mentioned that the cubes were something of a money sinkhole, and now that it had been built, the builders simply had no practical use for it, so just tossed in some guinea pigs to make it useful. As such, the overreaching explanations in “Hypercube”, and now the even more muddled history of “Cube Zero”, only further dilutes the already meaningless purpose of Vincenzo Natali’s original film. Why try to imprint meaning onto something that was never meant to have meaning in the first place? As Freud once said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes a pointless movie about people trapped in a series of cube-shaped rooms is just a pointless movie about people trapped in a series of cube-shaped rooms.
While the bodycount isn’t higher in “Cube Zero”, there is definitely more blood and gore, although no T&A to speak off. The film opens the same way all the “Cube” films do, with a Red Shirt prisoner stumbling into a booby trap while discovering, boot in hand. In this case, it’s a spray of acid that literally dissolves the man into a puddle of melted bone, skin, and flesh. Disgusting stuff, to be sure. Later, there’s a “slice and dice” booby trap that harkens back to the “slice and dice” trap used by Natali in the first “Cube”, which makes the point that there’s so little room for the series to go, that they’re reusing booby traps from previous films.
More successful is the film’s look, which easily sells the idea that this is where the cubes began, with its bulky, iron metal look, as compared to the sleek metal of “Cube”, or the techie look of “Hypercube”. It also makes sense that the booby traps are less sophisticated here, relying on spewing acid, flamethrowers, flesh eating bacteria, and good ol fashion impaling spikes. And although the script offers little room for complex characters, the actors assembled for the job do well enough, especially Bennett as the brainiac with a conscience and Moore as the tough babe. Also of note is Michael Riley, literally chewing scenery as the one-eyed Mr. Jax, and David Huband, in an understated role as the morally vexed Dodd.
Without a doubt, “Cube Zero” is an improvement over “Hypercube”, helped by its “going back to basics” approach. The sequel also has a lot more humor than the previous two, and as mentioned, the exploits of Jax and his underlings, as well as that of Wynn’s reactions once inside the cube, makes “Cube Zero” more of a thriller-comedy than a straight thriller. As such, there’s less tension this time around, but that’s not a surprise since, essentially, we’ve already seen this movie two times already. The ending is needlessly muddled, doing that dance of, “Was it all a dream or wasn’t it?”
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice that Barbarash failed to link his movie directly to Natali’s “Cube” via the fate of Wynn and a certain autistic character that would later show up in the original “Cube”. “Cube Zero” is supposed to be the prequel to “Cube”, after all, and the linkage would work, especially considering Wynn’s past as shown here.
Ernie Barbarash (director) / Ernie Barbarash (screenplay)
CAST: Zachary Bennett …. Eric Wynn
Stephanie Moore …. Cassandra Rains
Michael Riley …. Mr. Jax
Martin Roach …. Haskell
David Huband …. Dodd