SXSW Review: Cargo

By  · Published on March 18th, 2010

Cargo was one of my most anticipated films of this year’s SXSW. As I had mentioned before, while Sci-Fi is not my expertise, the titles that have most impressed me of late have been foreign entries. Sunshine, The Cold Hour, and Timecrimes are among my favorites. So when I heard a Swedish Sci-Fi film was playing the festival this year. I was incredibly eager to watch another country, one whose silence in this particular genre has been deafening, throw their proverbial hat into the ring. I can safely say that my batting average with finding solid, narrative Sci-Fi at SXSW remains abysmal.

Cargo takes place, where else, in the future. The Earth is dying and a new planet, called Rhea, has been colonized in the outer regions of space. The problem is that obtaining a visa to travel to Rhea is unbelievably expensive. A young doctor, Laura, agrees to take a job as medic on the cargo ship Kassandra to help fund her passage to the Utopian outland; her sister having already won a visa. The caveat for this high-paying position is that cargo ships are the premiere targets of a group of radicals terrorizing this particular region of the cosmos. Their leader, Klaus Bruckner, has been attacking cargo ships and killing crew members with such efficiency that he is actually part of the new recruit training video. The crew spends most of the trip in cryo-sleep with one member left awake to stand guard in four month shifts. During Laura’s shift, she makes the frightening discovery that they might not be alone on the ship.

I am often guilty of bestowing the trite, back-handed compliment to a film that it has a decent concept even when the execution is flawed. The problem with Cargo is that the execution is weak and the concept is a carbon copy of another, more popular Sci-Fi film. My breakdown of this is going to sound impossibly vague, and I apologize, but to even mention the name of the film this is aping would be to spoil Cargo. Sufficed to say, when the curtains are pulled back and all truths are unfurled, the secrets of cargo ship Kassandra will seem inescapably familiar and frustratingly ill-conceived. You will know at exactly what point this imitation occurs and exactly which film is being imitated.

The fault of the film is not that it borrows concepts from an American Sci-Fi. In fact, that’s a smart strategy for selling the film to audiences both here and in its native Sweden, and would be perfectly suitable if Cargo established its own voice on top of the reference. Unfortunately Cargo is sterile and unbearably dull. The pacing of this film could not be more sluggish and, when coupled with the hum of the ship’s machinery and the silence of deep space, creates the perfect habitat for a 100 minute nap. But we persevere with the awareness that Cargo is taking us somewhere and we expect a payoff. The unsatisfying, overly simplified copycat revelation is therefore doubly disappointing.

The other problem is the complete lack of character development for anyone other than the two leads. When you are making a Sci-Fi film that revolves around the crew of a ship, any ship, you are committing your audience to spending at least an hour and a half with them; helps to give those characters personalities. But in Cargo, the crew members are flat, undefined, and uninteresting. In fact, for the first few minutes, most of the crew members don’t speak. Apart from the amazing creature effects and haunted house atmosphere, why do we love Alien? It’s because the cast composing the crew members are all great actors who provide diverse, interesting, or even just funny characterizations. So again, with Cargo we have a boring, painfully slow story with not one character with whom we can connect.

So what we’re really left with here is a somewhat political, methodically paced (to put it politely) visual effects piece. And to Cargo’s credit, there are plenty of scenes featuring stunning visual effects work that adds a depth and scale to the realization of a nightmare future. But concordantly there are scenes featuring, half-assed, unrefined effects that apathetically show the audience the strings. The space walk stuff looks especially amateurish. So I would ultimately call Cargo an empty vessel adrift in an idea that’s not its own and, though it occasionally looks pretty doing it, adds nothing to Sci-Fi whatsoever.

Click Here for more from SXSW 2010

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.