Seeing a movie like Cargo at the start of a 30 day sci-fi binge is very fortunate. The unassuming Swiss thriller by Ivan Engler is a sweet sort of surprise and a reminder of how real science fiction can be concocted on a small budget. If it were sandwiched in between bigger or more successful films it might look more slight, but positioned at the start of a potentially rocky road, it gives hope for the rest of my journey.
The specific sub-genre Cargo targets is the ‘old dark spaceship’ scenario, with a small crew of workers on an interstellar freighter discovering that they aren’t alone and that something is alive in the cargo hold of their ship. For awhile the film threatens to become a version of Ridley Scott’s Alien, but then does a thematic flip halfway through and starts channeling Solaris or The Matrix. I was entertained throughout, due in no small part to the methodical and detailed pace that Engler creates for the film. The only real weakness is that once Cargo reveals itself in the second half, it never achieves theappropriate dramatic heft it aims for. The acting is solid, but Engler isn’t as good at differentiating the different characters and his desire to let the thrills manifest organically crash against the potboiler expectations of the premise.
But let me back up from criticism and express my gratitude that Cargo doesn’t end up being a half-hearted creature feature or a low budget laser-blaster extravaganza. There is a part of me, probably blossomed in childhood, that reacts strongly to this particular breed of film. I sit up in my seat with interest at the sight of mammoth, cathedral-esque ships chugging forebodingly through space while (technically silent) thrusters blare menacingly on the soundtrack. There’s something enticing when the dark, labyrinthine corridors of the ship are revealed and actors make arcane references to engines and devices, their functions often a mystery even to the characters. And when people start going missing, and the mission is slightly off course and there are questionable sounds emanating out of locked parts of the ship, you have officially got me hooked. In the first hour of Cargo’s running time, it does all of these things with unquestionable skill.
Also written by Engler, the plot is a hybrid of influences that does an efficient job of setting everything up and getting the mystery rolling in between the extremely impressive special effects. According to the world of Cargo, the Earth will become desolate and uninhabitable sometime around the 23rd century. In an attempt to continue their existence, the Earthlings occupy small, dingy space-stations while a new planet is prepared for them by the Kuiper Enterprise. This planet is Rhea, and its image, along with bright cheerful infomercials, is plastered all over the diseased, over-crowded stations that carry the forlorn and disenfranchised.
Some inhabitants are already on Rhea, and that’s where young doctor Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabrohis) is headed at the start of the film. She’s signed onto the crew of a small cargo freighter as their medic for an eight year journey to and from Rhea. At the end of the mission, she will have earned her passage to the new planet, where her family is waiting for her. Of course, it’s the last leg of the eight-year mission, Laura’s last shift, when she suddenly realizes that whatever it is they are carrying in the cargo hold is registering signs of life. Then, members of the crew start dying in unexplained ways and the mystery deepens. Laura doesn’t know who she can trust, and the rest of the crew don’t know what to make of her wild claims. As the film continues, things seem to be more sinister than anyone could have guessed, the truth extending all the way to Rhea and it’s promise of a new future. The remainder on the ship must band together to face the threat or perish, and the truth with them.
Cargo is a very atmospheric and tense film, its aesthetic elements easily its most strong. There’s an eerie, claustrophobic sense of isolation in the vast, shadowy chambers of the ship’s hull and the icy, frost-covered ledges of the cargo hold. The production designers have done their job and then some. These ships and space-stations look futuristic and advanced, but also lived-in, impersonal and pushed to their limits. The future humans are grungy, sick vagrants who sit coughing in clumps around pillars of cold, grey steel under sputtering green lights. Like an old, derelict house, the cargo hold looks like it contains a whole plethora of fearsome ghosts even if there’s none to actually be found.
The cinematographer allows his camera to climb and peer into every suspect nook and cranny. The exterior shots of the ships and the unforgiving space that surrounds them are first-rate and add distinction and conviction to the narrative. When we reach the big finale, that takes places largely with characters in space-suits floating outside a breathtaking structure, it’s nearly impossible to believe that this picture was made for only 2 million dollars. An economic combination of models and computer generated imagery, Cargo gives its sea-faring vessels a weight and reality that complements the grounded realism of the story.
The acting is strong and understated, which feels a bit subdued for a tale of intergalactic beasties trying to eat colonists but makes more appropriate sense the film shifts gears to something more psychological and speculative. Schwabrohis in particular is convincing and engaging as the lead, a woman who juggles compassion and cynicism equally, both sparked when she finds out about what’s being transported on the ship. The other members of the crew fall on typical sides of the hero/villain quotient, although I will go as far as to say that even the bad guys are more opportunists than simple, sinister black hats. At every turn, there’s great care to make this seem like a scenario that could happen.
In the end, it’s that very quality that prevents Cargo from being a great movie. The dramatic needs of the story require a bit more fanciful artistry, even if the details stay grounded in reality. Those who stumble ontoCargo will remember its twists and turns and strong sense of dread, but they won’t be talking about this conclusion with the same urgency or awe that we use when recounting the reveal of Dark City or the final passages of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In some ways, the bait switch also hobbles the urgency and immediacy of the film. The acting, score and filmmaking—as well as the use of close-quarters sets and lighting—prepare us for a good, solid monster movie. When the scope changes to something decidedly more epic, the feel and tone of the pic don’t change with it and the audience gets cramped. The twist itself is well-handled but not unique in the annals of science fiction. Real diehards of the genre will salute it, but they won’t be impressed.
This won’t, and shouldn’t, prevent you from seeking out Cargo. It’s an impressive debut and a great example of what can be done in the realm of hard sci-fi with a smallish budget. You don’t have to sacrifice eye-popping visuals or gobs of atmosphere. On the page, a financer could automatically assume Cargo would work better as a short story, but Engler imbues it with such a sense of the neo-gothic that we can be glad it made its way to the screen.
Next up, I’ll go back into the far reaches of my childhood and the 80’s for The Eliminators, a film featuring ninjas, caveman, cyborgs and Denise Crosby. This will be the first time I’ve laid eyes on it since the fourth grade. Can’t wait…