Brilliant set design and smart plotting are let down by pedestrian dialogue in “Cube,” an enigmatic sci-fier about ordinary people locked into a giant maze of metal boxes. Concept, and its impressive-looking execution, are strong enough to guarantee low-budget pic — which won a prize in Toronto as best Canadian first feature — a prominent place on vid shelves, if not in theater space.
Pic gets off to a dazzling start, with one unfortunate citizen (Nosferatu-like Julian Richings) waking up in a square metallic cell and, naturally, looking for a way out. He finds one. Unfortunately, the next room is booby-trapped with ingeniously placed razor-wire, and the poor shmoe is literally sliced to bits before he knows what hits him.
Thus is it made abundantly clear how high the stakes are in “Cube,” even before the six other main characters are introduced. With their drab prison uniforms and fogged-out memories, the former civilians — who gradually stumble into one another — have no idea how they got to the place, which seems to be an endless maze of boxy chambers, with most holding deadly (and different) surprises.
The group’s would-be leader is Quentin (Maurice Dean Wint), a cop in “real” life, and just the sort of no-guff guy to tough it out — and to make big mistakes. Challenging him is an equally blunt woman, Dr., Holloway (Nicky Guadagni), an avid conspiracy theorist who figures the Cube is part of some right-wing plot. This is at least partially confirmed by Worth (David Hewlett), a cynical, low-level bureaucrat who recalls working on a tiny portion of the government-funded project. (Whose government this is, is never discussed.)
Then there is Rennes (Wayne Robson), a former crook and escape artist whose skills come in handy. Leaven (Nicole deBoer), a young math student, doesn’t appear to have much to offer the group until they realize that the rooms are numerically coded. Finally, they are joined by Kazan (Andrew Miller), a mentally challenged man whose erratic behavior threatens their survival; of course, he has some (rather predictable) savant-like tricks up his sleeve.
Physically and psychologically, first-time helmer Vincenzo Natali, who scripted with two others, has fashioned a real Rubik’s Cube of a story. Designer Jasna Stefanovic and several f/x crews, working with few resources, have come up with a dazzling array of sharp turns and nasty gewgaws to keep the tale’s futuristic lady-or-the-tiger momentum going.
Too bad none of the characters has anything remotely interesting to say; dialogue is dominated by TV-like palaver that makes “Star Trek” banter sound like Stephen Hawking. Having constructed such an impressive shell, filmmakers seem to have little clue as to what comment they mean to make about society. Cast members are all at least adequate at glaring, sweating and swearing — except for Guadagni, a legit veteran who delivers every line as if she’s sitting on sharpened metal.
These disappointments — not to mention a grim, violent finish — put “Cube’s” theatrical life in doubt. Still, the tech aspects are so accomplished and intriguing, with Mark Korven’s minimalist music repping another bonus, that pic is bound to attract a cult among home-box prisoners.