Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Ghoul Versus Cube Zero

"Cube Zero: Real Cube taste and zero calories!  Enjoy (almost) everything!"

Let's see if I can figure this out. The United States government, working with the shadowy Izor corporation, built a giant complex to help them master quantum mechanics, presumably for military applications. They enlisted the help of notorious cyber-terrorist Alex Trusk, a blind teenage girl, to help them with construct it because she's an expert on tesseracts somehow. When Alex learned they were putting people inside of the cube to be tested, she tried to expose them only to have them come after her.

She fled into the cube itself, as she knew they wouldn't risk their lives to pursue her there. Even though she knew the entire time entering the cube was a death sentence, so I'm not sure what she had to gain trapping herself in a place where she had no food or water. Not to mention if Izor caught her, they likely would have stuck her in the cube anyway. There's also the question of how a blind girl was able to enter the cube, as one would have to think the entrance would be heavily guarded but WHATEVER.

Apparently she had some kind of super important device with her, so Izor sent Kate, one of their operatives, into the cube to retrieve it. Kate quickly finds Alex, only SHE DOESN'T KNOW IT'S HER. WHAT?! Izor, who has the power of the entire American government behind them, didn't know what Alex looked like or that she was even female? At the very least, they don't have video surveillance around their precious cube? Oh my God, that movie just gets worse the more you think about it. So a bunch of random bullshit happens, Kate's able to retrieve the device and escape the cube, only to get shot in the back of the head by her supervisors. Yay... and stuff.

Writer/director/producer Ernie Barbarash is no stranger to COMPLETELY pointless and baffling prequels and sequels. His filmography “boasts” such titles as the First 9 ½ Weeks (which is actually the THIRD 9 ½ Weeks movie), American Psycho 2: All-American Girl, Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming, and of course, the Cube 2. Not content after turning Sean Hood's original screenplay into... whatever the fuck the Cube 2 was supposed to be, Barbarash jumped into both the writer AND director's chair for the third movie, which is a prequel because EVERYONE loves those! Don't they? I don't have much else to setup this movie with, so let's just dive on in with A Ghoul Versus Cube Zero!

We open with a cube instead of an eyeball, which genuinely surprised me. It seems Barbarash might have learned how stupid the last cube looked, because this one is back to its grim and gritty roots and instantly looks much better. A man climbs into it as we see another element of the first, good movie is brought back as he's wearing a jumpsuit with his name on it instead of whatever clothes he happened to be wearing when he was abducted. Having everyone in regular clothes in the last movie definitely took away from the theme of oppression and imprisonment it was supposed to be conveying.

The man, Ryjkin, travels from room to room as we see they're back to using colour codes for the rooms. Not only that, they feature traps too. HOLY SHIT, not even four minutes in and this is already a better movie that the last one! Maybe I spoke too soon about traps though, because this one sprays Ryjkin with water instead of acid. He begins to frantically lick the water off of his arms for a nice scene that establishes how dehydrated he must be, only to discover it really WAS acid. His body begins to melt away in a bout of spectacularly disgusting practical effects, and I am ONE HUNDRED PERCENT onboard with this movie so far. Are we sure the same guy who helped write and produce the last one made this?

We then transition to two men watching this on a monitor, one named Wynn commenting how gross that was. Hahah, it certainly was! His associate, Dodd, says he doesn't even bother to watch the monitors anymore as he's much more interested in the game of chess they're playing. They work in a dirty underground office where their job is to observe subjects in the cube and make files about them, but we see Wynn is afraid for his life as their coworkers have a nasty habit of vanishing in the middle of the night.

A sound plays, signaling the arrival of an elevator that contains their lunch and their latest assignment. Their food consists of individual pills that apparently synthesize a full meal, which I thought was another neat touch at world building. They locate their latest subject, which is a blonde woman named Rains that Wynn becomes very taken with. They're somehow able to go into her mind and record a dream she's having, which concerns her and her young daughter Anna getting kidnapped by Izor agents. They don't use the name Izor, I'm just going to keep calling them that until the movie gives me a reason not to.

Rains wakes up confused, finding a barcode tattooed on the back of her hand. Unlike previous films she does remember her abduction, but can't remember her daughter's name thanks to whatever Wynn and Dodd did to her mind a few minutes ago. She crawls into the next room where she's grabbed by other prisoners in the structure, so let's see who we'll be spending the next hour with:
  • Haskell, a no-nonsense soldier
  • Meyerhold, who may or may not be Hurley from Lost
  • Bartok, a kind older gentleman
  • Jellico, a woman with some crazy hair that matches her personality
Haskell has a tattoo on his forehead that mirrors the design of the hatches in the cube, which was also inked on the forehead of one of the soldiers that abducted Rains and Anna. Rains threatens to make him eat his eyeballs and SPITS ON HIS FACE! DAMN! Don't piss her off ever! The fact that Rains still retains parts of her memory while no one else can remember ANYTHING about themselves turns everyone against her, as they think she's hiding something. Rains doesn't give a fuck though, as she's all about finding Anna and goes to leave until they warn her about the traps. They show her the method using boots to test the rooms and take her along with them, as they plan to keep going in a straight line until they hit the edge of the complex.

However, as these movies have taught us time and time again, the boot test is not infallible as Bartok quickly falls victim to a razor wire trap and ends up a collection of body parts lying on the floor. Back in the office, Wynn realizes Rains looks very familiar to him and tries to remember where he's seen her. This draws the chagrin of Dodd, who has been warning him the entire time not to ask too many questions or get involved in any of this. Wynn brings up an auxiliary exit some of their former coworkers mentioned, which Dodd strongly infers the discovery of cost them their lives.

While Rains and Haskell argue some more, Meyerhold notices a series of three initials in the crawlspace of every hatch. Rains gets the idea to draw a physical map of the cube, using the initials to mark the rooms that are safe. Wow, that's a REALLY good idea, far better than Jerry in the last movie numbering the rooms. As they start using math to determine the size of the cube, Wynn pulls her file out of a cabinet to read more about her. He learns she's in the cube against her will, as the previous prisoners were required to sign a consent form. WHAT?!

Wynn looks at the newspaper Dodd is reading, seeing a picture of Rains on the front page as we learn she's a prominent political dissident and was forced into the cube without a trial. He wants to call the people in charge upstairs and alert them about this, since it's highly illegal. And people signing consent forms to go into a death maze is? Dodd is also against this, but finally relents and hands Wynn a pair of keys since the phone is locked up as it's only meant to be used in emergencies. Wynn slowly reaches out for the phone to set up the JUMP SCARE of it ringing before he can grab it, because even this VASTLY IMPROVED movie isn't immune to cliches. He answers but the person on the other line wants to speak to Dodd, informing him someone is at the exit.

Dodd scrambles to perform the “exit procedure”, which involves him setting up a device on a rolling cart that looks like it was built from whatever they could find lying around at a junk yard. These Wynn and Dodd scenes REALLY remind me of a Terry Gilliam film such as Brazil or 12 Monkeys, as they share the visual style of “it's the future but everyone's using modern day garbage cobbled together into stuff”. This is yet ANOTHER point in this film's favour. Using the device, they pull up the image of the subject in the exit room, which just happens to be one of their coworkers named Owen. Beaten and bloodied, Owen limps to the exit hatch and opens it, getting bathed in light just like Kazan in the first movie did. This time we get to see what's on the other side of the light: a dark grated room where shackles wrap around his neck somehow. Hmm, not what I was expecting. Going off an instruction booklet on the device, Dodd asks him two questions over a loudspeaker: What is your name? Do you believe in God?

When Owen answers negative to the second, Dodd pushes a giant button marked “no” on the device, which summons jets of flames that burn Owen alive. Uhh... this movie's getting weird now. Wynn, echoing my thoughts, angrily yells at Dodd his outrage that everything in the cube comes down to believing in God or not. He then asks what happens if the person answers yes, Dodd shrugging because no one ever has before. Well gosh, I now know what Rains is going to say at the end of this movie. Wynn decides to pad the movie out to feature length running time by having a series of flashbacks of everything we've just seen, which I'm sure the producers appreciated. Filled with horror at everything going on, he jumps in the elevator before Dodd can stop him.

The elevator goes down to the entrance of the cube, Wynn hesitating for a moment before entering. Back above, Dodd hears the elevator arrive and stands in front of it to yell at Wynn for being so stupid. However instead of Wynn, the doors open to reveal three sinister looking men in suits, their leader sporting a weird robo-eye. He introduces himself as Jax, sent from upstairs to help Dodd deal with this little predicament he's now in by finding Wynn.

Jax's associates, Finn and Quigley, reveal they have robo-hands as they settle down in the office and produce some ultra high tech looking keyboards as a knockoff version of the theme to 12 Monkeys plays. So the Gilliam influence wasn't just in my mind, good to know. This entire scene might as well have been a deleted scene from one of his movies, as the tone is getting wackier and wackier by the second while Jax hams it up for the camera BIG TIME. In contrast to the aforementioned visual style of the movie, this is NOT a point in the film's favour because it's too drastic of a tone shift. Up until Dodd wheeled out the device, this was a very serious and dark movie. Now it's straight up whimsical.  Thankfully the film returns us to the cube, where Jellico gets separated from the group when the cube she enters plummets down to a different level. She ends up stepping on a needle hidden in the floor, falling unconscious shortly after.

An hour later the rest of the group finds her, the poor woman now looking like she got injected with the flesh-eating virus from Cabin Fever. She leaps at Meyerhold, scratching his arm in the process. He pushes her off him, but a little too hard as she falls hard to the floor and breaks her neck. Meyerhold almost immediately begins to suffer the same fate as her thanks to his scratches, Haskell wanting to leave him behind but the infected man says he'll test all of the rooms for them since the boot test isn't exactly accurate. Haskell agrees to this, but then throws him down a floor hatch at the first opportunity. Giant radar dishes pop out of the walls and vaporize Meyerhold, leaving only his bloody uniform behind on a pile of similar uniforms.

Rains bitches him out for doing this, despite the OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE he eventually would have turned on them like Jellico did. This is kind of hurting how smart Rains has been thus far, I don't like it! Wynn finds them at this time, as his encyclopedic knowledge of the cube has allowed him to traverse it flawlessly. He begins to explain everything to the two, Jax and his men watching them from the monitors. Wynn tells them they were condemned prisoners who were given a choice: either be executed or a sign a consent for to enter the cube to be experimented on, which offered the brief glimpse of hope with a possible escape. He goes on to tell them about the auxiliary exit, which isn't guarded like the one controlled by Dodd's machine, leading them towards it as he has a good idea where it may be.

Jax isn't keen to this idea, so orders his associates to activate a sequence in the cube that melts all the letters off the crawlspaces. This isn't enough, as he soon gets a call from HIS boss ordering him to end this game now. Jax has his associates kick the cube into overdrive, triggering a giant electrical field that threatens to kill them all. Just as its about to shock them however the cube loses power, thanks to a hidden effort by Dodd who is trying to protect his friend. We learn this only delays the inevitable however, as Wynn tells everyone the cube will restore power in ten minutes and perform what is called a “clean” sweep, which is a flash incineration of everything in every single room.

On the plus side this means all the traps are down, so they get to HUSTLIN' back to a room that'll realign with the exit when the power is restored, which will give them only seconds to leave before the fire gets them. Jax discovers Dodd's sabotage and kills him, ordering his men to restore the power because he doesn't trust the clean sweep to end his problems. They are able to activate a military chip inside of Haskell's head and cause him to plummet to his death as he's climbing up a hatch where Wynn and Rains are waiting for him. They run off as there's less than four minutes left, which is a shame because they miss Jax bringing Haskell back to life as a mindless Terminator.

Haskell attacks the two but they're able to overpower him by teaming up and knocking him out. They make it to the exit room with one minute to spare, surviving another Haskell attack to leap and leaping down the hatch into a body of water. They emerge near a forest, which has Izon helicopters and soldiers everywhere. They run for their lives, which actually isn't that dramatic since all of the soldiers shooting at them are proud graduates of the Star Wars Stormtroopers Academy. They finally manage to hit Wynn with a tranq-dart, the technician staying behind to allow Rains a chance to escape. He wakes up on an operating table with Jax looking at him, learning he's been found guilty and his sentence has been extended another two lifetimes.

Wynn brings up the choice between death and the cube, saying he wants to die. However, Jax holds up a contract and says he already chose the cube the first time and has been a part of the experiment the entire time. Ehh, this wasn't really surprising since the film already established Wynn couldn't remember life outside of the office, but at least it was REMOTELY clever. Wynn asks what happened to Rains, laughing when he realizes she got away. His laughter turns to screams as a doctor begins to cut his brain open, which transitions to a vision he has of Rains and Anna out in the woods hiding together. WOW, that isn't like the ending to Brazil AT ALL.

We cut back to the cube, where Wynn wakes up in a jumpsuit. He is now acting EXACTLY like Kazan did in the first film, doing the ticks with his hands and speaking in clipped phrases. Three other prisoners find him, recreating Kazan's introduction scene virtually word for word.

Cue the credits.

I sure hope Terry Gilliam got cut a check for this movie, since it “borrowed” from his body of work WHOLESALE. It's definitely a nice upgrade from the last film, which inexplicably thought it'd be a good idea to rip off the Langoliers. The problem with stealing from much better movies is it makes the parts of your movies that don't do this REALLY stand out. Everything in the cube is trivial and banal, and something we've seen seemingly a million times by now. The characters will bitch at each other until they're picked off one by one, rinse, wash, repeat... yawn.

Wynn's story faces much better as he does something the franchise has never thought of: decent acting. He makes you mostly care about his character and his quest for redemption in the form of trying to save Rains and Anna, and pretty much nails it. It's a shame such serious subject matter is derailed by the zany Mr. Jax and his Gilliamverse nonsense, because every time he's on camera it takes away from what's going on. I went genuinely vested in what was going on before he showed up. If Barbarash had understood Gilliam's style a little better this would have benefited the movie greatly, but instead we're left with yet another uneven film in the franchise.

It's watchable so I'd give it a slight recommendation for hardcore horror fans, or if you've made it through the first two and want to see how “it all began”... even though this doesn't absolutely nothing to establish anything the way a prequel should. If anything it muddies up the series mythology because the government is clearly a dictatorship of some sort, something none of the characters in the other movies mentioned once. But whatever, it's LIGHT YEARS better than Hypercube was.

This movie came out in 2004, so over a decade has passed without another pointless sequel. In 2011 Lionsgate Films, who now has the rights to the series, was doing the feeling out process for “The Cube 3D” because OF COURSE THEY WERE. That was four years ago and there hasn't been a peep since so hopefully that project crash and burned. Really, there's nothing else to do with this franchise that never should have been a franchise. Saw taught us with some amazingly long term planning or a hasty game of connect the dots that you can stretch a premise out way longer than it should have gone, but never once did the Cube indicate there was any kind of “plan” going on here. You know, besides make as much money as possible off suckers like me who liked the first film.