Imagine a square cage, 14 by 14 feet, covered on all sides by what looks to be translucent panels with geometric Art Deco designs. This is the space in which Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali has trapped six people in his highly ambitious and cerebral sci-fi thriller "Cube," a veritable nightmare of a movie.
Even though there are tedious stretches with less-than-riveting characters, the film gradually pulls you into its claustrophobic spell and becomes acutely suspenseful in its final half-hour. "Cube" was named best Canadian debut feature at Toronto last year, and there's no questioning Natali, clearly a visionary, is an important new talent.
The six people are Leaven (Nicole de Boer), a young math whiz; Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), a middle-aged female physician; Worth (David Hewlett), a technologist with a dark secret; Rennes (Wayne Robson), an escaped convict; Kazan (Andrew Miller), a young autistic savant; and Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a policeman. None of them knows how they got into the cube, but each may possess a skill, if everyone is willing to cooperate--a big "if," given human nature--that may enable them to escape.
The cube possesses massive steel doors in the center of all its sides, which slide open with the turn of a large handle. Soon it becomes apparent that the six are trapped in a veritable maze of similar cubes, each of which seems to be equipped with sensors that can trip all manner of lethal devices. The understandable terror that engulfs the six leads to personality clashes, which while completely credible, are nonetheless predictable and tiresome.
"Cube" really kicks in when Leaven starts trying to figure out the meaning of the serial numbers engraved on the lower sill of each of the doorways. Even if your grasp of mathematics is tentative at best you can understand that she may be on to something.
A storyboard artist with "Johnny Mnemonic" among his credits, Natali has made several short films, including "Elevated" (1996), in which three people, trapped in an elevator, are menaced by an unseen force. Natali wisely avoids explaining who constructed the cube maze or why these six people were selected to be placed in it, playing on our fears of claustrophobia and powerful unknown forces.
Natali has had a major assist from his production designer Jasna Stefanovic, a master at creating an elegant but menacingly high-tech environment; his resourceful cinematographer Derek Rogers; and his composer Mark Korven, whose score adds just the right subtly unsettling note. Among the characters only Leaven becomes fully engaging, and the cast, short on charisma and personality, is merely competent. (Think of how distinctive and involving the people, caught in a somewhat similar predicament, were in Robert Wise's "The Andromeda Strain" without being "movie stars.")
Sci-fi fans, however, are not likely to be disappointed by "Cube." It is worth noting that "Cube" is the fifth production of the Feature Film Project, which was launched four years ago by the Canadian Film Center, a training institution founded in 1986 by Canada-born director Norman Jewison.
* MPAA rating: R, for some strong sci-fi violence/gore and language. Times guidelines: The film is too terrifying for children.
Nicole de Boer: Leaven
Nicky Guadagni: Holloway
David Hewlett: Worth
Andrew Miller: Kazan
Wayne Robson: Wayne
Maurice Dean Wint: Quentin
A Trimark Pictures and Feature Film Project presentation of a Cuba Libre production, produced with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Ontario Film Development Corp., the Harold Greenberg Fund and Viacom Canada. Director Vincenzo Natali. Producers Mehra Meh, Betty Orr. Executive producer Colin Brunton. Screenplay by Andre Bijelic, Natali, Graeme Manson. Cinematographer Derek Rogers. Editor John Sanders. Costumes Wendy May Moore. Music Mark Korven. Production designer Jasna Stefanovic. Running time: 1 hour, 32 mins.
* Playing at selected theaters around Southern California.