Shown during the midnight movie portion of AFI FEST, 2010, Cargo is the first ever science fiction film from Switzerland. Made over a period of eight years it has the much needed visual style to compete with the more mainstream science fiction films and enough mystery and suspense to appease the casual viewer.
In the year 2267 the Earth is no longer habitable and most humans now live in overcrowded, disease rampant, epidemic awaiting, space stations. Much like shanty towns littering space the inhabitants dream of a better life on the planet RHEA, located five light years away from Earth. RHEA is a place of wonderment where children once again run free in green valleys and the sun warms your soul. The passage to RHEA is expensive and with work scarce the main character of the film, Laura (Anna Katharina Schwabroh), accepts an eight-year job on the Cargo ship Kassandra in order to make enough money to join her sister’s family on heavenly RHEA. The Kassandra is anything but a deluxe spaceship or where you would want to spend any portion of your life awake, or in cryo-sleep. It is dark, rough inside and out, and the sleep chambers resemble a bath of warm glue. Laura is determined to get through her time on the ship and secure a better future. Things do not go as planned as noises in the night frighten her and areas of the ship that are forbidden hold dark secrets leading to the discovery of frightful things that will change the beliefs, and fate, of the entire world.
Cargo starts off on a great note. It heightens the mystery in the first half of the film that causes you to conjecture on what exactly is real aboard the ship and who the true enemy may be. The solitude that is life aboard the Kassandra is imagined fully, and the ideas that everything may be a hallucination is consistently possible. The crew of characters are the mainstay in science fiction but they each provide the necessary component to keep things moving along steadily as deaths begin to occur and questions are raised. Then things begin to change near the end of the film. The great mystery of what does or does not lurk in the dark is revealed and suddenly we are thrust into a rehashing of older science fiction narratives tossed together with a heavy dose of melodrama. Any new possibilities one hoped to find in the narrative of the film vanishes and the audience is left with a third act that does not live up to the initial mystique. This is not to say the ending does not fulfill the viewer, as it of does have the climactic twist as is expected; it merely falls short of creativity.
Cargo has been toted as an homage film to the likes of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick 1968). You may as well add to the list Solaris (Andrey Tarkovskiy 1972) also. For anyone (very) familiar with the science fiction genre the similarities between Cargo‘s story, shot construction, as well as mis-en-scene will undoubtedly be obvious. This does not make it a poor film to watch, but it does make for a difficult viewing experience for the science fiction aficionado; especially when it starts moving into the Sci-Fi movie-of-the-week trap. But as science fiction narratives go more times than not, repetition or homage, and even the tinges of melodrama are hard to escape. When you look at the film from the generic viewer standpoint it is completely adequate to watch and enjoy throughout. Viewer reaction is positive as it should be because in the late hours of the night, when the dark is creeping in around you, a film like Cargo is well-suited for a movie-going audience with its bleak undertones of the future and fatalist attitudes mingled with new hope for a prosperous future.
The great triumph of Cargo lies within the special effects of the film. With a total budget of 2.1 MIO USD, where a half-million was used for post production, it is commendable at what the filmmakers have accomplished. They also had a great deal of help that led to free software licensing, computers, nuts and bolts to build the sets, as well as a group of trainees to help get the work done. As the Director Ivan Engler also openly adds, “I worked for no money for about eight years”. For an independent filmmaker anywhere in the world the mere idea of having over two million dollars to work with is a dream come true. When you are dealing with the science fiction genre, and the creation of an entirely new world in space, two million may not be all that much money. But as Cargo shows, you can make an incredibly stylistic, spectacular display with only a quarter of that amount and do it so it has the look of a Hollywood blockbuster.
From the opening shot of the film, as the camera glides through space showcasing the ship humans live upon, and billboards litter the great expanse of space, you are immediately in awe at the remarkable work the special effects team has done. When we are brought aboard the Kassandra you can see the great amount of detail in every element of the production design. There is never a moment where your suspension of disbelief is lost as to being in a futuristic world. Most impressive are the scenes in the cargo hold of the Kassandra where the initial mystery of the film is developed. This cavernous place that appears to be beyond comprehensive as to its vast expansiveness is a maze of containers. The angular camera shots display the depth of the area and the characters appear as mere dots against the cargo hold’s backdrop. When the containers move the entire place becomes disorienting and then reorientates itself back into the ordered space it once was. These are the type of scenes in Cargo that make it stand out to the viewer and keep the eye engaged throughout the film. It may not be the most original science fiction narrative but it has the visual style to elevate it to a greater level of significance in independent filmmaking for the science fiction genre.
The FilmFracture Breakdown:
Production: 2 clocks
Special Effects: 4 clocks
(Switzerland, 2009, 118 mins, HDCAM) Directed By: Ivan Engler, Ralph Etter Screenwriters: Arnold Bucher, Ivan Engler, Patrik Steinmann, Thilo Röscheisen Executive Producers: Ralph Dietrich, Karin Dietrich, Michael Egli, Philippe van Doornick, Daniel Wolfisberg Producer: Marcel Wolfisberg Cinematographer: Ralph Baetschmann Editors: Bastian Ahresn, Timo Fritsche, Ivan Engler Music: Frederik Strömberg Co-Producer: Andreas Caplazi, Ivan Engler Production Design: Matthias Noger Cast: Anna Katharina Schwabroh, Martin Rapold, Michael Finger, Claude-Oliver Rudolph, Regula Grauwiller, Yangzom Brauen, Pierre Semmler
This film was screened at AFI FEST 2010 presented by AUDI. For more information about the festival please refer to its website here.