Canadian sci-fi movies, cubed

Imagine suddenly waking up on the floor of an unfamiliar windowless room, dressed in a drab industrial uniform you’ve never seen before, with no idea how you got there. Or how to get out.

That’s the basic premise of Cube, a film about seven strangers who find themselves stuck in a mysterious maze of interconnecting and often fiendishly booby-trapped cubic rooms. Without any idea who put them there, or why, the ragtag group of abductees travels through the cube – struggling to survive each other as much as any of the cube’s death traps.


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Seven years before the first Saw movie made a name for itself with mind-bending killer booby traps, Cube was Canadian king of creative on-screen kills.

Often compared to a 90-minute episode of the Twilight Zone, Cube came out to mixed reviews in 1997. Critics praised its sleek industrial sci-fi look, jaw-dropping booby traps, and suspenseful atmosphere, but weren’t as thrilled with the “remarkably trite” dialogue and “threadbare” characters. Despite the lukewarm reaction, the film would go on to become a cult classic of sci-fi horror cinema.

Cube was American-born, Canadian-raised director Vincenzo Natali’s first feature film.

Produced with the help of the Canadian Film Centre on a bargain-bin $600,000 budget, it was shot entirely on a single Toronto soundstage. While it had a disappointingly limited run in Canadian theatres, Cube did big business overseas, grossing almost $15 million in France alone.

It would go on to win Best First Canadian Feature at TIFF, earn 6 Genie Award nominations, screen at the Sundance Film Festival, and make Empire’s 50 Greatest Independent Films list.

It was successful enough to spawn a few less-than-thrilling sequels: Cube 2: Hypercube and Cube Zero.

The slice-and-dice kill from the original film’s disorienting first scene even has the dubious honour of being hommaged (some might say ripped off) in the first Resident Evil film. Watch the scene below:

[Warning: things pretty messy here]

As a true Canadian cult classic, Cube is a good first stop on your homegrown sci-fi odyssey, but it shouldn’t be the last.

A Jim Henson inspiration?

In 1969, Jim Henson (of Muppets fame) created an hour-long teleplay for NBC called The Cube. It follows an unnamed white-collar man who suddenly finds himself stuck in a bland industrial cubic room, with no idea how he got there, or how to get out. Sound familiar?

Unlike 1997's Cube, The Cube features a huge cast of secondary characters that constantly pop in and out of the room, pestering the main character about everything from chocolate bunnies to quantum physics, before he has a chance to figure out how to escape.

It's an existentialist, self-aware exploration of the inner psyche of a man, of race, religion, and the nature of reality.  And whether or not it was a formal influence, Jim Henson's program bears an uncanny resemblance to Vincenzo Natali's Cube. It's not Canadian, but it's well worth the 53-minute run time.

Watch it on YouTube, here:

Beyond the Cube

All you have to do is google “Canadian sci-fi movies” to see that Canada is starting to be recognized as a leading producer of science-fiction films and television. There’s an army of articles out there hailing our current sci-fi renaissance, and they all say the same thing: Good things are coming from the Great White North.

But it wasn’t always this way. First Americans had to invade in the 1990s. These aliens from south of the border took advantage of Canadian locations, actors and production teams — with mostly Canadian talent running the show behind the scenes. They don’t call us Hollywood North for nothing.

Case in point: The long-running Stargate SG-1 television series was about as Canadian as maple syrup (aside from lead actor Richard Dean Anderson, anyway). The Stargate series whitewashed any trace of Canadian-ness from its fictional world, and some fans are apparently still surprised to learn it’s a Canadian production.

But lately, things have been looking up for Canuck sci-fi produced and openly set in Canada. The list of current made-in-Canada productions on networks like SYFY and Space is longer than Pamela Wallin’s expense account. The Lost Girl, Orphan Black, and Bitten, all fly the flag pretty proudly, just to name a few.

While the boob tube seems to be exploding with our own brand of science fiction, the box office hasn’t quite caught up. Aside from Cube, pretty much every David Cronenberg film, and a few other standouts, all-Canadian sci-fi movies have been few and far between.

Of course, the horror story isn’t over yet. We’ll have a post on Cronenberg, the master of body horror, and look at some blood-soaked Canuxploitation films, as well as recent classics like Ginger Snaps later on in this series.

You're reading ABCs of Canadian film: A crash course in essential Canadian cinema.

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