Directed by: Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
Written by: Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter
Based on their homonymous 2013 short film, co-directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo firmly belongs to that mostly fastidious breed of a movie, the genre piece whose seemingly ashamed creators desperately try to elevate by turning it into a straight drama and, thus, into a legitimate piece of art.
They fail on both counts whether they actually put any effort whatsoever into trying to craft a satisfactory addition to the zombie subgenre or not; their film is utterly dismissable pulp and instantly forgettable character piece. This latter mainly because, among various reasons, there are hardly any characters to develop.
The movie’s central conceit is as alluring as it is simple: a recent widower faces certain and imminent metamorphosis into an undead entity (or whatever else we might come up to refer to a vampire, ghoul or zombie without actually saying said words out loud: ours isn’t a Troma movie after all, ours is a “Film”) and must make sure her baby daughter is properly set up and looked after before that moment arrives. It is an effective, potent idea to mine from and extract about as much tension and heartstring-pulling as desired but there’s neither to be found in the ultimate execution.
Starring a disheveled, bearded Martin Freeman (facial hair seems to have been the filmmakers’ one idea to turn his usual boyish Omega male into a more casually average Beta one) the movie promptly lets you understand that whatever issues you are soon to find are not to be blamed on the cast which, beyond him, extends to only a handful more players. The performances are almost unanimously solid and even the somewhat aloof presence of child actress Simone Landers, playing an indigenous Down Under kid run over by misfortune (in what could be so easily labeled a timely metaphor for neo colonialism, not unlike Thor: Ragnarok) is completely welcome.
The problem lies with the screenplay and, more problematically, with the way they chose to direct Freeman’s depiction of his character’s extremely brief – or perhaps urgent would be more accurate – arc. If you didn’t know the plot you’d be highly hard-pressed to describe it based on what you witness onscreen: we are told that after contagion the virus takes not a single second beyond 48 hours to completely overtake you yet, once Freeman is contaminated (and he stresses the fact by setting off a countdown on his stopwatch), he barely seems troubled at all. He ditches his totaled car, takes his baby and embarks upon an apparently aimless walk down the great Australian outback, a staunch rictus of slight distress firmly shaping his features at all times, no particular sense of haste in his stride.
What follows in broad strokes (the movie is one hour and forty minutes and just this side of undeniably boring) is part travelogue, part road trip (sans car). If this bereaved man has a plan we are never let in on it and, worse yet, there is no flair chronicling his ramblings. Not that there is anything wrong with storytelling formalism but when a thrilling setpiece is successfully set up (which they cleverly do with a scene detailing their attempts to escape from a cage) and immediately forgotten to move on I pined more than a bit for what De Palma (or even some stylist wannabe) would have done with it. Not even trying, though? Not acceptable.
For me it is near impossible not to become increasingly impatient with this sort of film which eschews the very reasons (if any) that make it worth existing in the first place in favor of a misguided quest for a tinge of respectability (respect from whom, in any case?). Cargo works with a low budget, clearly, yet it is technically impeccable, with competent cinematography that channels a lot of effort to lovingly display the oftentimes impressive Australian scenery and an effective enough sound design but it is all for nothing without any real passion imbued into the proceedings. Scare me. Make me think. Better yet, make me feel. Compensating for a lack of resources with technical proficiency, as it does, is letting the trees blatantly get in the way
of the forest.
Thematically, as quietly detached from them as it concerns itself with being, the movie is deeply entrenched in the exact same “mankind was the real enemy all along” rut that almost completely defines both the 28 Days / Months Later films and The Walking Dead, and even more specifically Maggie, the tepid chronicle of a father’s stubborn refusal to fail his ill daughter, hardly the first influence most people would feel eager to compare their own efforts to – especially when the Schwarzenegger vehicle (itself an almost irredeemable failure in my humble opinion) would come out on top.
As it is, it offers way too little grotesque make-up and gore for hardcore zombie afficionados and even less genuine emotion for art house patrons looking to tip their toes in uncharted, potentially shameful waters. Cargo is not dead on arrival but it is far from being alive. It is simply undead. — Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar