The concept is novel, the introductory teaser—a man waking, disoriented, in a tiny room with backlit walls and closed hatches, one of which leads to another room where he’s unexpectedly cubed by a giant cheese grater—is captivating, and the story itself is a beautiful blend of psychological horror, creepy visuals, and nearly flawless character development.
The first time I saw Cube, a 1997 Canadian film directed and co-written by Vincenzo Natali, I approached it with some doubt that a story taking place in such a limited setting could sustain itself for 90 minutes. Creating a full-length movie using a set composed basically of one 143-foot room (the walls’ backlit colors being the only indication that one room is any different from the next), and with a budget of approximately $350,000, seemed an impossible undertaking. Even with a seven-person cast of unique characters, the story development would take a stroke of genius to pull off.
But I’d underestimated Natali et. al, and in doing so, I learned an important lesson about pacing through characterization and skilled plot exposition.
The writers start off by offering the impression that the characters—each waking in a different room with no recollection as to how they got there—are random. They find one another by chance, or seemingly so, and appear to have nothing in common. We soon learn that the common thread is that they are so distinctly different. Initially, the writers give us limited information about the first five players in the group: Helen is a doctor who works for a free clinic; Leaven is an average-looking college student; Quentin is a cop and obvious alpha male; Worth is a pessimist who describes himself as “just a guy” who works in an office, and Rennes is a career criminal who’s made a name for himself as a prison escape artist.
We fall into a false sense of guarded security along with the cast when they decide to follow Rennes’ lead. After all, if he’s broken out of multiple high-security prisons, he must have what it takes to escape from the booby-trapped enclosure. He successfully veers them out of harm’s way a few times, using his boots to trigger motion detectors and even noticing one room doesn’t smell quite right, the air exceptionally dry. Just when we think his skills are going to see the group through, however, he hops into a room only to be sprayed in the face with acid.
With Rennes’ gruesome death, Quentin takes charge, but the group is hesitant to continue. Leaven, however, has developed a theory. Turns out she’s a math whiz, exceptionally gifted, and she’s noticed each room has had three sets of three-digit numbers etched in the crawl spaces between the hatches. She’s also noticed that all three sets of numbers bordering the safe rooms have been prime. The group proceeds, only to come to a room where every direction appears booby trapped. They decide to climb up and check the room above them, only for a developmentally disabled young man, Kazan, to drop through the hatch when they open it. Helen, the bleeding heart, convinces the group to bring him along.
At this point in the movie, I remember thinking, “Okay, they’ve sustained the story pretty effectively up to now, but how can they possibly maintain this level of momentum and story progression? What more can they possibly do to keep monotony from setting in?”
The answer ends up coming via an effective use of character study followed by yet another clever twist. We learn that Quentin is separated from his wife and children because he suffers from violent outbursts, Helen has a paranoid, conspiracy-theorist streak to her personality, and Worth is an architect—and he finally admits to having designed the cube’s outer shell. He knows nothing else about the cube, other than the fact that the shell is exactly 434 feet long. This gives Leaven the information she needs to estimate the group’s distance from the edge. They excitedly make their way to what should be their final room, only to find the coordinate system has somehow failed them.
The only possible explanation is that the rooms have been moving; they’re navigating what is essentially a giant Rubik’s cube. And just as disheartening, they learn via a close call that nearly ends Quentin that Leaven’s prime number theory is incorrect.
At a new standstill, Leaven does more math using their surrounding coordinates, realizing the safe rooms have not prime numbers, but rather prime factorization. She’s too physically and emotionally drained to continue, the numbers just too big for her to work with. Leaven says a set of numbers, and how she can’t possibly factor all of them down. Then, out of the blue, Kazan speaks up: “Two…. Factor … two.” We learn along with the characters that Kazan is an autistic savant and, you guessed it, he’s a human calculator.
I know I’ve given a large amount of plot description here, but the plot is what makes this movie so exceptional. The writers take what appears to be a simple idea that can’t possibly weave itself into a complete story, and with it they produce a movie that not only contains numerous plot points, but is engaging, evenly paced, and unpredictable. This helped to show me that there’s a fully developed story in every idea just as long as it’s planned and presented carefully enough. Characters that appear flat at first glance can develop in surprising ways, and that development can be a useful tool in fleshing out the story itself.
This lesson gave me a newfound measure of insight into my own use of pacing. It offered a good example of how to reveal a plot in small but sensible pieces, allowing my audience only the information that is necessary for the moment, leading them through a complex list of seemingly simple points. I’ve learned to take my time with a scene, really explore it as far as I can before moving on to the next.
Recently, I completed my fifteenth novel, a 66,000-word thriller that takes place almost entirely in a single, tiny apartment. Much of the story depended upon characterization, and without the qualities I observed in Cube, I never would have had the tools to sustain the story. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even attempted to take it on such a huge challenge. If you’ve never seen Cube, you should. It’s a great psychological thriller—and you might learn a thing or two from it.
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Leigh-M.-Lane/e/B0055DSE6Y
Biography - Leigh M. Lane has been writing dark speculative fiction for over twenty years. She has ten published novels and dozens of published short stories divided between two genre-specific pseudonyms. She is married to editor Thomas B. Lane, Jr. and currently resides in the outskirts of Sin City.
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