Despite what the ads show you, Cargo is not your typical space-station horror movie. It's Switzerland's first large scale science fiction film, and it's one that showcases enough smarts and skill that it ranks among scifi cinema's best.
Cargo is a much grander work than the Alien clone it looks like in trailers, blending classic scifi ideas about the destiny of humanity with massive visual scope and confident direction from first-time feature directors Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter.
In all honestly I was completely taken aback when the first act of Cargo started to play. I knew Engler's budget was a mere fraction of what Neil Blompkamp had for District 9 and even less than Duncan Jones had for Moon, so where were all these massive Blade Runner by way of anime shots coming from? I expected the film to be peppered with the odd establishing shot here and there to give the illusion of scope beyond the frame, but in Cargo epic shots keep coming and coming and coming. And just when you think the film can't get any bigger, Engler and Etter set their entire 15 minute climax in space, outside a HUGE space station. And the VFX shots are truly staggering, competing with anything coming out of Hollywood. You can see the production crew's sleepless nights up on the screen and it is this kind of sheer ambition that makes Cargo such a rewarding viewing experience.
So, if Cargo isn't a monster movie, or really even a horror movie, then what's it all about? It feels more like a mystery than a straight up thriller. There are certainly moments of eerie suspense and a couple of decent action beats, but it never truly crosses over into "scary movie" territory. Some viewers might consider this a flaw in the film, but I think the Cargo crew would rather have this film lumped into the "smart scifi" genre and so the film plays more like Blade Runner, Solaris, Soylent Green, Moon or Sunshine than Event Horizon or Alien.
Essentially, the human race is in a bad way. The earth is dying and quickly becoming uninhabitable. Massive space stations the size of multiple cities are orbiting the earth, but even these can't accommodate earth's refugees. Disease, pollution and a new terrorist group is quickly making life on the stations unbearable.
Those lucky enough to be rich or win the travel lottery, are able to find passage to RHEA, a new colony set up on another planet. Otherwise space travel is just too long and too expensive for everyone to go. No "light speed" here, folks.
Enter Cargo's protagonist, Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh), a doctor who takes a position on an eight-year cargo mission delivering building materials to the unmanned "Station 42" to make enough money to go to RHEA and reunite with her sister. Most of her time on the mission will be spent in cryosleep, but each crew member is required to spend a certain amount of time awake to make sure the piece of crap ship stays together during the mission.
Three and a half years into the mission it is Laura's turn to live alone on the freaky space freighter and weird stuff starts happening. Eventually there is a malfunction in the cargo hold and Laura wakes the other members up to investigate. When they realize that the malfunction was sabotage, they begin to discover that their cargo is part of a major conspiracy to control the human population by whatever means necessary (don't worry, Soylent Green isn't people here, gang) and that someone is willing to kill to keep it hidden.
Cargo is a classic dystopian epic. It nails the look and feel of a world that's falling apart at the seams. It's certainly gritty and realistic. The ship is a piece of crap where stuff's always breaking down. Space travel is long, boring, expensive and hella cold and the crew loves to complain about it. In fact it's so cold that there's even snow in the the cargo hold.
Technology in the Cargo world seems to be extremely advanced, and we see a lot of gadgets and body manipulations throughout the film. Unlike other scifi films which tend to gloss over the issue of light years, Cargo gives us realism: Even though you can send electronic messages to other stations or planets, it takes years to get a message in return.
At the center of the film is the ship's cargo hanger, so large it's like another world - metallic and deadly - where "railings don't exist" (a space opera pre-requisite once uttered by George Lucas). Entering the hanger is strictly prohibited and when the crew goes in you can see why. It's pretty darn treacherous making your way through the maze of moving house-sized containers. Two of the film's most unique sequences take place in the hanger and the execution is simply great.
I wanted to make sure to mention the film's score, because it's Fredrik Strömberg's first time out of the gate and it's simply astounding. Haunting, beautiful and sumptuous, it marries the film's visuals and really elevates Cargo to a classic status.
But of course, as no film is perfect... I've seen Cargo three times now and despite how much I love the film for it's story, acting, production design, music and cinematography, I think that Engler and Etter could have cranked up the horror factor a bit to give the film a more immediate sense of peril. There are a couple of kills in the film, but because they happen fast and you see none of the violence you don't feel the threat level rise as much as you should.
That said, I know Engler wrote a few drafts of the film. One was much more violent, but it was toned down in favour of putting emphasis on the film's scifi elements. Since Cargo isn't meant to be a horror film I can see the logic, but still, a little more of the ol' ultra-violence to turn the screws a little would have made the experience that much more engaging.
Despite this minor quibble, I think Cargo is primed to stun viewers who won't be expecting its unique story, confident direction and striking visuals. I certainly wasn't.
The film is definitely in the same league as any of the latest scifi films we've been loving like Moon or Sleep Dealer and I hope everyone gets a chance to see it.
Cargo was released this year in Europe, and played at the SXSW film festival in the U.S. this month. No word on when we'll be able to get it in the U.S.