Take a captive group of characters, hardwire in tension (why are they there?) and invention (who’ll be the last man standing?), and you have the basic ingredients of the ‘What’s in the box?’ genre – a series of nifty, no-budget puzzlers that includes Cube, Malefique and Fermat’s Room.
Sleek, sharp and straight to the point, Stuart Hazeldine’s feature debut holds its own among such high achievers. Imagine a job interview conceived by Jean-Paul Sartre and Alan Sugar and you’re not that far off the mark.
Ushered into a guarded room by invigilator Colin Salmon (Goldeneye), our eight nameless Examinees are given 80 minutes to answer one question. But there’s a catch: no one knows what the question is, and if they spoil their papers, talk to the guard or leave the room they’re fired.
Hazeldine rewrote the scripts for Hollywood sci-fi flotsam such as Knowing and The Day The Earth Stood Still (god knows what they were like before), but here he demonstrates a skilled eye for minutiae, quickly delineating the eight by race, ruthlessness and physical tics.
Although the only truly compelling character among this rum bunch is City bully boy Luke Mably, the fact that most of the candidates remain ciphers is somehow fitting – they’re all grist to the corporate mill.
Starting strong, but dipping in the middle, the film runs its tight little concept right up to the final countdown, ensuring the audience is wrong-footed as often as the rapidly dwindling candidates, without ever cheating us outright.
As in The Apprentice, it’s egos and infighting as much as the strictures of the scenario itself that prove to be their downfall. Unlike The Apprentice, the segues into sudden violence are unwelcome and largely uncalled for.
“Is this the ultimate mindfuck or what?” asks one candidate. No, but as a nifty directorial calling card it most definitely makes the grade.
Keep your eyes on smart-cookie writer/director Stuart Hazeldine. Though he shows his workings one too many times, this cautionary tale of corporate cloak-and-dagger more than passes muster as a kind of credit-crunch Cube.