Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Ethics of "Cube"

Horror movies have a strong ethical component. By showcasing what the normal characters have to do to survive the deformed destructive being (DDB), they implicitly teach what are the correct ways to survive in the real world. The classic example is the Final Girl, who is usually virginal and thereby escapes getting slashed like her randy cohorts. The DDB acts as an ethical teacher, instructing us what not to do by destroying the person who did it and sparing the person who did not do it.

In my book, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films, I list six ethical rules that are found with particular frequency in horror films:

1. Be conservative.
2. Do not commit sacrilege.
3. Do not have unmarried sex.
4. Do not get contaminated.
5. Beware of youth.
6. Be charitable.

It is the rare horror film that does not teach one or more of these principles. But there are exceptions. One of these is Cube (1997), a hybrid science fiction/horror film in which six people from different walks of life are stranded together in a giant cube consisting of interlocking rooms. The cube is essentially a maze, in which the object is to escape to the outside world while avoiding deathtraps that are liberally sprinkled throughout the edifice. Nobody knows who willed the cube into existence, so the cube itself is the DDB: an artifact that is deformed by virtue of having no sensible purpose for its construction, and that is clearly destructive. The six captives appear to have been selected for confrontation with this DDB because each has a skill that can be contributed to the good of all: one is a cop who knows how to lead; another a prison escape artist; another a mathematician who can make sense of the number scheme that governs the cube. A doctor, a designer of the cube, and an autistic man round out the six.

So, what do we learn ethically from Cube? At first it seems we are in for a conservative lesson about how important it is to work together. This is the point the cop keeps stressing, and from early in the movie he is the authority figure, the one who seems most practical, positive, and determined to escape. The characters do work together, but for most of them the result is failure. As for the cop, he ends up going berserk, attacking his comrades, sexually assaulting the female mathematician, and being killed for his troubles. So the rule "Be conservative," with its support for authority, does not apply in the world of Cube.

On the other hand, defying authority, as the prison escape artist does, also meets with a bad end: the escape artist is the first of the troupe to die. The doctor is charitable to the autistic man, and she dies, so "Be charitable" doesn't work very well. Neither do "Do not get contaminated" and "Beware of youth": they don't seem to apply to the cube. The cube designer gets killed, perhaps because he is a nihilist who is always ready to give up, thus violating "Do not commit sacrilege." But by that rule, as well as the rule "Do not have unmarried sex," the mathematician, a young, intelligent woman who resists the sexual advances of the cop and never gives up struggling to escape, is the chief candidate to live. She is, by all rights, the Final Girl. That's what makes it such a surprise when she is killed.

Only one of the six survives and escapes: the autistic man. He is a nice fellow, and is able to contribute his autistic savant mathematical skills to solving the puzzle of the cube. But what does his survival teach us ethically? It is better to be developmentally disabled than not? This does not seem an ethical lesson most of us can practice on a daily basis. And therefore Cube is ethically nihilistic. It teaches nothing about how to act; it only presents the horror of a world in which there is no way to act that is better than any other.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films


Anonymous said...

Wow, I had the opposite impression from the movie. It seemed very anti-nihilist to me. I think the ending of the film was very powerful in this regard. It was the only time the nihilist was very motivated to do anything, and he was able to die satisfied with an accomplishment he (and the audience) considered meaningful.

Don't get stuck with your literary analysis shortcut: thinking that when a character dies we should judge their actions as immoral.

Anonymous said...

Also, the whole tragedy of that scene was that if the nihilist guy had not nihilistic-ly stopped, both he and the smart girl would have exited (and maybe lived). So that aspect of him seems to be condemned.