This review was originally written for Subtitled Online August 2010.
Switzerland’s first attempt at sci-fi, and writer-directors Ivan Engler/Ralph Etter’s feature film debut, CARGO harks back to numerous icons of science fiction cinema – from THE THING to THE MATRIX, and, most prominently, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN. It belongs to that particular breed of dystopian science fiction where the world is ruined and the human race is living on borrowed time.
The film opens with Dr Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schwabroh) joining the crew of The Kassandra, a cargo transportation ship that is set to make a journey to the distant Station 42. Laura intends to make enough money to join her family on the planet Rhea – humanity’s last hope after Earth is left uninhabitable – by 2267. The people of Earth have been forced to flee their home planet and now live as refugees aboard cramped space stations rife with disease, famine and fear until they can be resettled more permanently.
After boarding the cargo vessel, Dr Portman is briefly introduced to the rest of the crew of sci-fi archetypes. There’s the old and grizzled Captain Lacroix (Pierre Semmler), the by-the-book second officer Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), a double-act of engineers Vespucci and Prokoff (Michel Finger and Claude-Oliver Rudolph), Yoshida the computer expert (Yangzom Brauen) and the mysterious Decker (Martin Rapold) – the security escort hired after a recent bout of terrorist attacks. All are put into cryo-sleep for the journey. Each crew member is awake for an eight month shift of the journey to maintain the vessel and cargo, and it is during Laura’s shift that strange things begin to happen. There are odd noises on the seemingly deserted ship, and something appears to be moving below in the cargo hold. She wakes the Captain and Decker and they investigate.
When Captain Lacroix mysteriously falls to his death while investigating the cargo hold, the rest of the crew are woken to decide on their next move. Suspicions arise about their cargo and their true mission. Both Decker and Lindbergh look like they are hiding something. What is the cargo they are transporting and why? And are the crew really alone on the Kassandra?
Cargo is visually impressive for a film considering its relatively meagre reported €4.2 million budget. The very first thing we see is a glittering space station hanging in low orbit of a colossal planet, then we then zoom right through a window in the side of the station. Here, we are taken inside, and we feel part of the cramped, squalid conditions of a space ghetto. The film is no less impressive when onboard the Kassandra, the corridors are all Ridley Scott-esque industrial piping shrouded in shadow, and the vast cargo hold looms ominously like a mechanical cathedral – you could scarcely get more creepily atmospheric locations.
Despite the visuals and the promising start to the story, Cargo has its problems. The most annoying thing about the film is how the writer-directors seem to have given into the pressure of audience expectations of a sci-fi film. It’s got the opportunity to be inventive, to stand out, but is actually not very different to a typical Hollywood film. The crew is made up of all the usual characters you find in every American sci-fi; we have the stiff and regimental officers, the smart-ass engineers and the computer expert of Asian ethnicity. Even the character of Laura is a little too close to Ripley of the Alien series (they both go on a similar character arc, starting fairly meek and quiet, before becoming independent heroines).
The first half of the film builds tension very effectively, and shocking revelations are promised from the start – we desperately want to find out what the crew are transporting and why, and what Decker’s secret agenda is. Unfortunately, when the truth is finally revealed, it’s a bit of an anticlimax, even if it does offer some nice emotional beats. We’ve seen it all before. The plot itself also meanders, and is more than a little incoherent in the final 20 minutes or so.
Cargo is a competent sci-fi, but it’s nothing special. The first half is effectively tense and engaging, but it loses its way towards the end. Visually stunning considering the budget, but unfortunately, it’s nowhere near original or creative enough to be considered a particularly revolutionary, or memorable sci-fi film. SSP