Sold as Switzerland’s first ever science-fiction film, Cargo serves as an ambitious foray into the genre by directors Ivan Engler (who also serves as a screenwriter) and Ralph Etter. With a bankroll of only about $4.2 million, the filmmakers use an in-house graphics team to frugally create the films stellar visuals. The use of relatively impressive (especially when considering budgetary restrictions) CGI for the external shots of the space ship and station, as well as the atmosphere itself, combined with haunting practical sets for the ships interior, set the mood perfectly for this intergalactic mystery.
Set over 250 years in the future, Cargo exists in a universe where earth has become so polluted, humanity is forced to vacate the planet and live on large, elaborate space stations. For the lucky few who can afford a visa, solace can be found on Rhea, a distant planet that has been retrofitted to sustain human life. Described as paradise by those who live there, Rhea is the dream destination for Dr. Laura Portman, who has recently accepted a job as the resident medic on a cargo ship called Kassandra. With only one tour on the freighter, Laura will make enough money to move to Rhea. Kassandra is set to embark on a four-year journey across the galaxy to deliver construction supplies to Space Station 42. Though the journey is long, each crew member will spend most of it in deep cryogenic sleep, only to awaken for his or her designated eight-month shift. However, during Laura’s time managing the freighter, she discovers a secret regarding the cargo they are delivering. This revelation sets in motion a series of events that could change the course of human existence forever.
Engler and Etter uncover pieces of their story artfully, revealing just enough to gratify their audience’s curiosity, while still leaving viewers enough in the dark to keep them wondering what would come next. The first big secret uncovered, the contents of the ship’s cargo bay, prompts more questions than it answers — further engrossing the viewer. This pattern continues until the big reveal during the film’s climax, raising the stakes each time. Though the story grows more complex as it develops, it never becomes unintelligible, an accomplishment in its own right.
Though it often succeeds, Cargo still has occasional missteps. A romantic subplot between Laura and another crew member is completely unfulfilling. The relationship seems to develop instantly, with absolutely no foundation. Though used later to justify the characters’ actions, this element of the story was largely unnecessary and would not be missed if cut altogether.
The biggest problem with Cargo, however, has little to do with small details or individual scenes, but the story as a whole. Once the entire mystery is uncovered, and all its cards are on the table, a sense of déjà vu overwhelms an educated audience. The biggest, most important plot device is hugely derivative. So much so, that revealing which film Cargo borrows from, would ruin the movie completely.
Throughout its entire runtime, Cargo remains thoroughly entertaining. It is only when the viewer realizes exactly how much of its plot is recycled, that it becomes less rewarding. Honestly, if you’ve never seen the other film in question, you will probably really dig this movie; unfortunately I did, and it hurt my viewing experience.
The San Francisco International Film Festival takes place this year from April 22 to May 6.
Please visit the official SFIFF website for more information on specific screenings.