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  • Cargo (2009) | Review

    SXSW FILM 2010

    By | April 7, 2010

    Directors: Ivan Engler, Ralph Etter

    Writers: Arnold Bucher, Ivan Engler, Patrik Steinmann

    Starring: Anna Katharina Schwabroh, Martin Rapold, Regula Grauwiller, Yangzorn Brauen, Michael Finger, Pierre Semmler, Claude Oliver Rudolph, Giles Tschudi

    I saw Cargo with Dave Campbell (here’s Dave’s review of Cargo) and we were both a bit tired, so a two-hour long meditative (read: slow) sci-fi film with very little action was probably not our best choice of screenings to help keep us awake (the cans of Guinness probably didn’t help matters either). Dave and I left the Paramount very disappointed. (I haven’t read Dave’s review yet, but his continued disappointment with Cargo has come up in a few conversations – so I’m assuming his review is quite negative. My review is by no means an effort to dispute Dave’s opinion; it is more of a discussion as to how and why my own opinion of Cargo has changed.)

    The more I have thought about Cargo, the more I have decided that I actually liked it. Sure, it is highly derivative (and very referential) of Alien, 2001 and Solaris as well as several others; but if you are going to reference past sci-fi, these are all great choices. And the resulting mash-up of the various sci-fi masterpieces is rather unique – and seductively cerebral.

    Cargo takes place in the year 2267. Due to environmental destruction (a path our society is undoubtedly on in reality), Earth has become uninhabitable by humans. Now the human race is essentially quarantined to a bunch of overcrowded space stations (one reason to put more effort into our space program) which orbit the Earth.

    Visually, the space stations are one of the more mind-blowing special effects of Cargo. An infinite array of city buildings has literally grown out of these expansive cylindrical structures – the result being what appears to be an infinite inverted city. As menacing and ugly as these space stations appear, my mind can’t even fathom what the view from one of these city buildings would be like. If you looked straight up, you would see the other side of the city; if you looked forward or backward, you would see the city wrapping upward around the cylinder; if you looked side to side, you would see space, the final frontier. Of course these space stations are far from ideal – congestion of over-population has spawned a bevy of communicable illnesses and few are able to afford suitable healthcare, thus sickness spreads rapidly and uncontrollably.

    Dr. Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) has succumbed to the relentless advertising that perpetuates the human daydream of being able to afford to live on the distant planet of Rhea – which is represented visually as the most perfect Eden, as if Earth’s biosphere was reset and pollution was abolished forever. Laura also receives regular transmissions from Rhea from her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner) – providing further motivation and justification to get off her space station. In dire need of the significant sum of money required to go to Rhea, Laura has signed up with Kuiper Enterprises to take a job on-board the cargo ship Kassandra.

    The Kassandra embarks on an eight-year journey to space station #42 – in the distant RH278’s planetary orbit – and back to Earth’s orbit. Due to the length and tedious monotony of the trip (something this film represents via its own narrative pacing and structure), the crewmembers spend a majority of their journey in cryo-sleep, taking 8 ½ month solitary shifts to watch over the ship. Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold) is onboard the Kassandra to provide the crew with additional security because of a heightened terrorist threat from the “Machine Strikers” – a group who exists solely to reveal the real truth of Rhea. (Pegged by many as radical conspiracy theorists, the “Machine Strikers” question the truths in the corporate advertising of Rhea.)

    Nearing the end of her shift, Laura begins to think that other beings might be onboard the Kassandra (besides the crew – who should all be in cyro-sleep). So Laura wakes up the Captain (Pierre Semmler) – and they soon realize that Samuel (the aforementioned sky marshal) has already awakened himself. The grand assumption is that Laura is going crazy – or at least seeing/hearing things that aren’t really there. But it is not long before the Captain is murdered and Laura is forced to awaken the rest of the crew.

    Assuming the command of the Kassandra (much to the protest of Samuel) is the grumpy and stern second-in-command Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), who along with the remaining crew – Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph), Vespucci (Michael Finger) and Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen) – attempts to uncover what the hell is going on. As the title of the film reveals, the secret will be found in the pitch black confines of the ice-cold cargo bay.

    First-time directors Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter intelligently comment on a plethora of current events and issues via Cargo: the need for prompt environmental regulations and change; the burdens that overpopulation puts on society – specifically in terms of its strains on the health care system; the definition and perception of terrorism; the importance of corporate regulation and truth in advertising.

    Laura is a doctor – presumably a financially viable career, and she is probably quite intelligent – yet she finds herself on the crew of the Kassandra because she cannot afford to fulfill her one simple dream (albeit one that has been engrained in her mind by the manipulative advertising strategies of an evil corporation) to move to Rhea. (This right here is probably the most significant message inherent within Cargo.) Laura literally puts her life in jeopardy in order to make enough cash to do something that should really be within her reach (or are we to concede that corporations and personal wealth will determine whether we live or die?). Cargo truly is a testament to the power that money and corporations wield. Tempting carrots of ways to a better life are dangled in front of us every minute of every day – the question is how tempting does the carrot need to be and how dire does our everyday struggle to survive need to be in order for us to bite? And what are we willing to do in order to get to that carrot – what chances are we willing to take? Are we willing to give up eight years of our life (most of which will be spent in cyro-sleep) on an old dank spaceship just for a chance to experience Eden?

    Cargo is a visually fantastical Swiss import which appears to be significantly more robust than a less than $5 million dollar (US) budget would infer. Yes, it is slower than molasses in January; but I think Engler and Etter are merely sacrificing propulsive dramatic devices in order to achieve greater realism. Cargo has very little in common with the science-fiction genre – even though the story does take place in space, in the future – the pacing, structure, tone and narrative content are more akin to European art films. A meditative immersion into what the future could have in store for us, Cargo exists to discuss the present rather than contemplate our future.

    That said – I can definitely see how many people will probably see Cargo as being tedious, tiring and negatively derivative. That was my initial response too, but I have thought a lot about Cargo in the last month or so; more importantly, I wasn’t trying to think about Cargo – it just kept creeping back into my mind. It just took me a while to really unlock exactly what Cargo meant to me and why I couldn’t shake it from my memory (which is why I saved this to be one of the final SXSW 2010 reviews that I would write). I am hoping that Cargo gets a theatrical release in the U.S. because I would really love to experience it again (in all its silver screen glory) – this time while I was more awake!

    OK, now I’m finally going to read Dave’s review!

    Rating: 8/10

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