Film Review - 'Cargo'

'Cargo', available on Amazon

3 stars for 'Cargo'

Cargo, released in 2009, may have the distinct honor of being Switzerland's very first science-fiction film. It was also the first film by Swiss director Ivan Engler. That's two firsts, then - when either one, on its own, probably would have been enough to cause an audience some degree of trepidation.

The first thing that we learn about this fictional universe is that Earth is, essentially, done. We are never given the details, but Earth has been rendered uninhabitable - and, the human race is leaving in droves. The only problem is that, for most who leave Earth, there is simply nowhere else to go. leaving them stranded on an overcrowded space station in orbit around Earth.

This is not the fate for everyone, though. For those who can afford it, there is the option of making the trip to a distant planet called Rhea - a world which, according to the advertising, is practically perfect. People who are able to make the trip to Rhea are able to live out idyllic lives in a carefully crafted utopia. But, earning a place on Rhea takes money - so, most people find themselves stuck somewhere in between.

One such survivor is Dr. Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schawbroh). By the time we meet her, Laura has spent years dealing with the aftermath of a slowly dying world - treating outbreaks of various diseases, and watching patients die. She is worn down and tired, and wants nothing more than to join her sister on Rhea. In order to be able to do so, though, she needs to money. So, Laura signs up to act as the doctor on a cargo ship about to set off on a long distance voyage to deliver

The trip will take years - but, the crew will spend most of it in cryogenic suspension. And, at the end, she will be able to afford to make the trip to Rhea.

The crew of the 'Kassandra', the run-down cargo ship that will be her home for the next few years, is made up of only five people: Captain Pierre Lacroix (Pierre Semmler), Anna Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), Miyuki Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen), Igor Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph) and Claudio Vespucci (Michael Finger). Along with the rest of the crew, she also meets Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold) - a government agent assign to the ship as a precaution against terrorist activity.

Everything appears to be running smoothly as the years pass (thankfully quickly). But, as they near their destination in the final few months of the voyage, Laura becomes convinced that there is someone else on the ship. And when, while conducting a search of the ship, Captain Lacroix is killed in what at first looks like an accidental fall but is (naturally) something more sinister, it seems that her suspicions have been confirmed. Suddenly, the crew of the 'Kassandra' is left not knowing who they can trust.

The first half, or so, does a fairly good job of building up the tension. Slow-panning shots and subtly ominous music gives the interior of the ship a genuinely imposing atmosphere. And, the thought that there might be someone active on the ship who shouldn't be makes us think that, maybe, we're watching a particularly well-done thriller set in space. Now, there's nothing wrong with that film. Sure, it's been done before - but, still, you can't get any more isolated than a ship drifting through the depths of space, can you? Sure, the film may go a bit overboard in its attempts to unnerve the audience - throwing in a seemingly constant stream of ominous music and sudden scare chords even when nothing particularly interesting is happening. But, it's still a film that I would have been quite happy to watch.

Unfortunately, though, there is a change of focus about half-way through - and, the 'killer in space' film that I thought I was watching becomes something completely different. The cargo that the ship is carrying isn't supplies and building materials for a distant space station - it's people kept in cryogenic suspension. And, the destination isn't even the distant space station that they all thought it was. No, they're heading for Rhea - that distant planet which was supposed to represent a new future for the human race. Both of these facts had been carefully hidden from the crew. Why? Well, that's the mystery. Why would the crew need to be, essentially, tricked into smuggling people to Rhea? And, why does it seem as though someone might be trying to stop them from getting there?

The quiet and restrained science-fiction thriller that I was watching, and even enjoying, tried to turn itself into something much grander in scale in this last half - something that tried to address the future of the entire human race. And, it was here that the film began to noticeably struggle with its own ideas. That's not to say that there aren't some interesting science-fiction ideas buried in this second half, though. It's just that they aren't quite as well handled as you would hope. Not because of what the audience learns about what is actually happening on Rhea (honestly, that was actually quite a clever surprise), but because of how the characters (Laura and Decker, in particular) react to it. There were so many problems with the end of this film that it went fairly close to actually ruining the entire experience for me - so many moments where my only reaction was something along the lines of 'well, that's stupid, why did they do that?'

It was frustrating.

The film certainly looks the part, though. From the opening shot of a massive space station in orbit around Earth, through to the external shots of the ship traveling through deep space, and on to the grimy and claustrophobic interior of the ship itself, Cargo does an impressive job of capturing the look of a science fiction dystopia. Sure, in this fictional universe, the human race may have successfully made their way to the stars - but, only because they were left with little choice. The opening shots of the scared and huddled masses on the space station is more than enough to establish that this isn't an age of exploration and adventure for the human race - but, rather, one of desperate survival. The fictional reality that these characters are forced to live in feels real - which is, really, what you want from good science-fiction.

In the end, though, the major problem that I had with this film wasn't on of plotting, but of characterization. Particularly when it comes to our two leads - Laura and Becker. Along with the sheer frustration brought on by their behavior in the film's climax (which I have already mentioned) these two almost immediately fall into one of the most unconvincing romances I have seen in film in recent years.

Seriously, it just seems to come out of nowhere. The two share very little screen-time, for a start - and, when they are on screen together, they interact like two co-workers trying to not to get on each others nerves. And, that would have been fine. But, then, he goes in for a kiss - and Laura, rather than slapping him, reacts with what seems to be mild confusion. Then, he does it again later. And, the next thing you know, they're all over each other. Honestly, I wish I was exaggerating here - that's really all the build-up there is to their relationship. The first time Decker went for a sudden kiss, I thought that it was the beginning of a much creepier relationship - and, that the film was about to move into much darker territory than it already had. But, no - apparently, Dr. Laura Portmann just responds favorably to being randomly kissed by men she barely knows.

And, things don't really improve between them, afterward.

I don't know if it was the script, the direction, or the actors (or, all of the above), but there was never a moment between these two characters where I bought that they actually felt anything for each other. The film, quite simply, would have been better off without trying to inject this romantic element.

The problems I had with this film may have seem significant, but that shouldn't take away from what the film actually did achieve. This first effort from the young Swiss director is a perfectly competent film. It manages to establish and maintain a genuinely tense atmosphere - and, even inject some clever ideas. And, the cast (despite the problems I had with out two leads - which I've already spent long enough on) are more than up to the task of helping to bring this world to life. If you're a fan of science-fiction, then it would probably be worth your time - if only to see how other countries around the world treat your favorite genre.

© 2013 Dallas Matier

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