Scott Hardie: “It was ok.”

Let's hear it for filmmakers who are honest about their own failings. In the making-of featurette on this straight-to-DVD release, writer-director Ernie Barbarash admits that he made it because he was so unsatisfied with how his "Cube²: Hypercube" turned out. If the best way to criticize a movie is to make another one, I suppose that goes double if you're the filmmaker responsible for the original mess.

On the whole, "Cube Zero" is the weakest film in the horror trilogy, but it still has a great deal going for it. This one steps out of the cube and tells the story of a former child prodigy who is a computer technician working on the project. Maybe it's because most of the other actors are so lousy, but Zachary Bennett is terrific in the part, carving out a highly sympathetic and human character in the midst of artificiality. He and fellow technician David Huband (the only other good actor) must shoulder the film's moral theme, whether one is truly absolved of guilt for wrongdoing when "motivated" by god or government. Obviously Mr. Barbarash isn't familiar with a history book or a legal brief, but really he's interested in the souls of his characters... Or he seems to be, anyway, within the boundaries permitted by this grim series, which very few characters survive.

That's one of the two most off-putting elements, in fact: The grisliness of the death scenes. The original "Cube" had more of a traditional low-budget feel to it (I'm still amazed that the entire set was one room), and the film was so cheap that the victims in the elaborate death scenes looked like the mannequins they were. But computer animation has come so far along that even a super-low-budget release like this one can afford crisp, photorealistic effects, which only serve to make it seem like someone went to a great deal of trouble to animate the most graphic elements of human torture. This isn't quite another "Cannibal Holocaust," but it does portray gore and agony in such crisp high-resolution as to make you question the motives of the filmmakers. Like its predecessors, it never does completely explain why someone would go to so much trouble to watch such suffering; the original dodged the question by limiting its perspective to the victims, but this prequel doesn't get off so easy.

Speaking of which, the biggest problem with the film is its human villain. When finally we meet one of the "men upstairs," he turns out to be a ham-fisted cartoon character, as if one of Carmen Sandiego's henchmen broke into a live-action film. It's not that the actor is bad so much as that the character is inappropriate; he couldn't do a worse job of breaking the tension if he delivered every line after sucking on a helium balloon. "Cube" has always worked best when its scares are taken seriously — one of the most chilling moments comes when a technician enters the cube and pauses in muted horror at what he has just done — and this villain is far too cartoonish to appear hand-in-hand with such grim material. I hope that Mr. Barbarash is prepared to try yet again.

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