Cube Launched a Franchise, but Cube 2 Invented an Entire Genre
Here's why it's worth revisiting two decades later.
The concept of a game where you die when you lose dates back as far as 1924’s The Most Dangerous Game, if not further. But in the ‘90s, one sci-fi thriller dared to make a mind-bending tweak: what if that game took place in a man-made impossible space?
That movie was, of course, 1997’s Cube. But while the Canadian cult classic did plenty to explore the philosophical consequences of its bizarre and gory premise, it wasn’t until April 15, 2003 that the concept was taken to its extreme.
Cube 2: Hypercube essentially repeats the events of the original. A new set of confused strangers awaken to learn they are trapped in the brightly lit chambers of a dangerous device that is obfuscating reality known as a hypercube. As they travel from room to room, characters start to reveal their relationship to the cube, and a conspiracy begins to develop. But why are they trapped inside and how do they escape?
To raise the stakes, Hybercube doubles down on the math and science of its precursor by playing with quantum mechanics and real theoretical mathematical concepts. The traps are gone, replaced with a hostile environment in which time and gravity are distorted, alternate universes violently collide, and spinning quantum razors might pulverize you into a bloody mist.
If you think focusing on math is a strange approach to a horror sequel, well, you’re not wrong. While Lionsgate demanded a sequel after the original became a hit, Cube’s writer-director Vincenzo Natali turned the project down. “I just didn't think it was a story that sequelized well,” Natali told Slash Film back in 2010. “I mean, it was hard enough making one movie out of that premise, and believe me, if you've ever shot in a cube, you don't want to do it more than once.”
“Believe me, if you've ever shot in a cube, you don't want to do it more than once.”
While it may have been a difficult shoot on a very low budget, Hypercube received roughly quadruple that amount (up from roughly $275,000), allowing for expanded VFX and a much bigger production and crew.
Acclaimed cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, whose credits include Reservoir Dogs and American Psycho, came on to direct and acted as cinematographer as well. This meant a huge emphasis on the visual elements, as well as a highly creative collaborative process with the VFX team, with discussions of how the hypercube should look, behave, and interact with the humans given utmost importance.
The Hypercube set was constructed as a confined space, flooded with light, and easily equipped with green screen panels. “It really influenced the actors,” Director Sekula said in on-set interviews back in 2002. “We were afraid that being inside the box with such a high level of light, and light which gives you strange feelings… we were concerned they may have an epileptic fit or a nervous breakdown.”
Twenty years later, some of the VFX look dated, but when the artists discuss their work on the film it becomes clear they were using cutting-edge techniques. An entire virtual cube was created to sub in for the physical set when shots became unfeasible – like the camera spinning fully through a space or multiple pulls of gravity on different characters in one shot. With the combination of camera work and VFX, those shots still appear seamless. The “Razorsphere” that attacks the players may not have aged as well as some of the other effects but it has a campiness to it that keeps it entertaining.
An alternate ending found on the DVD reveals all the events of the film took place over a mere six minutes and fifty-nine seconds in the hypercube, and that it had been a government-funded experiment by the IZON corporation testing out quantum teleportation. The introduction of IZON gave a name to the unknown entity behind the cube, a massive weapons producer with countless subsidiaries under it.
Cube Zero, the direct-to-DVD third entry, picks up where Hypercube ends, following a pair of IZON technicians keeping the original Cube experiment running. Cube can be viewed standalone, but the expanded mythos in the sequels is exciting and rewarding. Hypercube and Cube Zero kept the franchise fresh in fans’ minds, especially with the level of debate they inspired about the value and meaning of the lore. Hypercube was not well-loved upon release, but it has a cleverness and a campiness many still tap into — especially those with an interest in time-travel films. The series is still popular internationally, and a Japanese remake of Cube was released in the U.S. on Screambox earlier this year.
Now any death game with a mathematic twist now is endlessly compared to the Cube series, from The Zero Escape Trilogy video games to the current Netflix show Alice in Borderland. The first Zero Escape game, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors feels intrinsically linked to Hypercube, with its metaphysical time-bending and use of digital roots to enter and exit puzzle rooms.
The trilogy’s use of this death game setting as a philosophical criticism of capitalist and forced moral ideologies is increasingly reflected in modern media. The Belko Experiment (2016) sees employees of another massive corporation sealed in their office for an inhumane company-run social experiment. The morality-focused Saw (2004) was acquired at Sundance by Lionsgate in 2004 and followed a conspicuously similar path to Cube. The theatrical release was a success, Lionsgate quadrupled the budget for the sequel, and the themes of the first two Saw films are so aligned with the Cube films, you can easily find many critics and YouTube essayists analyzing the similarities.
So, if the trajectory set by the release of Cube and Cube 2: Hypercube eventually led us to The Platform (2019), in which a platform with food moves through a vertically stacked cubic prison, and that inspired the Gordan Ramsay cooking competition Next Level Chef, when can we anticipate a real-life Cube being constructed for its own reality TV program? Possibly very soon.