Cube (1997) and The Platform (2020) are both currently available to stream and make for a very interesting double bill. Both films are set in futuristic prisons, and both have very different approaches to the idea of escape. While tonally and thematically very similar, it is fascinating to see how differently each film resolves its story. This isn’t like comparing Die Hard (1988) with Die Hard-on-a-bus (Speed, 1994), Die Hard-on-a-plane (Non-Stop, 2014), or even Die Hard-in-a-tower-again (Skyscraper, 2018) rehashes. The 23 years that passed between release dates have seen a fundamental shift in the way these stories are told.

Cube’s six strangers wake up in a cube-shaped room; one of, potentially, thousands. Given no explanation of where they are or why they’re there, they’re forced to work together to traverse booby-trapped rooms to, they hope, find an exit. Platform is set in a tower block prison with holes cut out of the floor and ceiling of every cell. Through this hole, a platform of food passes once a day. Each cell has a certain amount of time to eat before it continues downwards.

Cube really doubles down on its prison motif. The characters are named for famous prisons, as though they carry it within their own identities. There’s Dr Helen Holloway, Officer (San) Quentin McNeil, Joan Leven and her complement, David Worth. At one point, Leven asks what’s outside, to which Worth replies, “Boundless human stupidity” where people have “nothing to live for.” Life outside the prison is deemed as pointless as life inside; the best explanation they can agree on for the cube’s existence is some architect with an excess of money and boredom. It’s a real archetype of a particular brand of ‘90s nihilism which began with Grunge, was made cool by Fight Club (1999) and reached its apex in the 21st century with the edgelords of 4chan.

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Courtesy of: Lionsgate

In spite of this, the characters in Cube still try to escape. It fits into a common trope of ‘90s movies, perhaps best exemplified by the closing lines of Seven (1995): “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It was a decade that saw fundamental global change: the fall of Soviet Russia, the beginning of globalisation. Francis Fukuyama announced ‘the end of history.’ While not every film of the time shared the same brand of nihilism as Cube, there are a lot of common threads in ’90s movie making. As daily life in the western world felt lacking in conflict, there was rising popularity in extra-terrestrial threat (Independence Day, Armageddon) and movies about boredom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Office Space). Other characters became obsessed with the idea that there must be more to this life and wanted to escape it; Cube’s wide release coincided with both The Truman Show and Pi. This came to a climax in 1999 with the release of The Matrix which saw Mr. Anderson, a bored cubicle worker, offered a blue pill to live in blissful ignorance of his imprisonment or a red pill to become the system-crashing, kung fu-fighting superhero Neo.

The Platform’s central character Goreng has no desire to escape the system. He wants to beat it. Horrified by how inmates on lower levels kill and eat each other to survive while the highest levels dine luxuriously, he rides the platform to the bottom, using violence to force people to take a fair share. What he discovers further confirms the corruption, and painfully plays with the possibility of a better outcome.

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Courtesy of: Netflix

So while one film focuses on the drive to escape, the other posits that the system is greater than individuals. While it’s difficult to identify trends as they’re happening, there has been a recent series of films where characters battle with acceptance or are subject to bigger forces which their individual stories can’t resolve. Rick Dalton of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood struggles to stay relevant in a world that is passing him by; Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems tries (and fails) to break his cycle of gambling, debt, and violence; even after Cpl. Scofield’s epic journey in 1917 the audience leaves knowing the war will continue for another two years. This was, of course, done to perfection in Parasite. The Kims and the Parks are controlled and affected by the same unseen system of the ‘90s. Bong Joon-ho just gives it its name – capitalism – and makes a modern fable depicting it in its inescapable totality.

The prisoners of the Cube use maths to make their escape, in much the same way that Neo uses a red pill. The Kims and Goreng both accept the system and believe they can outsmart it, and yet both films end in a bloodbath. Parasite finishes with an impossible fantasy; The Platform with a vain sense of hope. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for ‘90s nihilism, which was almost optimistic in suggesting that people needn’t accept their present reality.

There is a theory that nostalgia moves in 30-year cycles, and believe it or not, 1990 was 30 years ago. Yet, looking at the difference between these two films makes it unlikely that we’ll see this particular cycle come around again. The sequel to one of the ‘90s’ biggest hits, Independence Day, has already crashed and burned, and the upcoming Matrix sequel seems pointless. Why have a reality-changing super-hero when we now have an established cinematic language that has achieved commercial and critical success by proving it will make no difference whatsoever?

Cube is available to stream on Amazon Prime

The Platform is available to stream on Netflix