Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Film Review - 'Cargo'

First released in 2009, Cargo actually has the distinct honour of bring Switzerland's very first science-fiction film. It was also the first film from Swiss director, Ivan Engler. So, that's two firsts - when either one, on its own, may have been enough to cause some degree of trepidation for the audience.

The first thing that we learn about this fiction universe is that Earth is dying. We are never really giving the specifics on what has rendered the planet largely uninhabitable, but what do know is that the human race is currently leaving in droves - seeking out new homes, elsewhere. The problem, though, is that there is simply nowhere for most of those who leave Earth to go - leaving many stranded in an increasingly over-crowded space station, in orbit around a slowly dying planet.

This is not the fate for everyone, though. For those who can actually afford it, there is also the option of making the journey to a distant planet called Rhea - a world which, according to the advertising, is practically a paradise, perfectly suitable for the wealthy elite. Anyone who is able to make the journey to Rhea, it is claimed, will be able to live out the rest of their lives in a carefully crafted utopia - but, of course, the journey takes money. So, while some get the make the journey, it seems as though the majority are stuck in an uncomfortable mid-point.

One such refugee from Earth is Dr. Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schawbroh). By the time we meet her, Laura has already spent many years dealing with the results of a slowly dying planet. She has devoted herself to treated the outbreak of various diseases, and she has been forced to watch many patients die. It is understandable, then, that by this point she is worn down and tired. Laura wants nothing more than to join her sister on Rhea - but, of course, she does not have enough money to pay for the trip. So, instead, Laura signs on to serve as the doctor on a cargo ship set to deliver supplies to a distant space station. It is a journey that will take years, of course - but, the crew will spent most of the journey in cryogenic suspension. Most importantly, though, at the end of it all, Laura will have the money she needs to buy her way to Rhea.

The crew of the 'Kassandra' is made up of only five others: Captain Pierre Lacroix (Pierre Semmler), Anna Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), Miyuki Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen), Igor Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph) and Claudio Vespucci (Michael Finger). Also making the journey is Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold) - a government agent assigned to the cargo ship as a precaution against terrorist activity.

It may not feel like the most original science fiction film, sure - but, at this point, Cargo has managed to get off to a fairly impressive start. The fictional universe we have been introduced to feels painfully real - and, the cast of characters we have met all feel well-rounded and relatable. From here, much of the actual journey passes quickly - with the crew alternating between periods in cryogenic suspension, and periods of work aboard the ship. Everything seems to be going smoothly - but, of course, that can't last. In the final months of the voyage to this distant space station, Captain Lacroix is killed in what, at first, appears to be an accidental fall - and, Laura begins to uncover evidence that suggests that there may actually be someone else on board the ship. Suddenly, isolated and with no one they can turn to for help, the crew of the 'Kassandra' are left not known who they can trust.

Again, none of this will feel terribly original - but, once again, it is all very well done. For the first half of the film, or so, Cargo does a very impressive job of slowly building up a sense of genuine tension as it seems to settle into its 'thriller in space' format.Slow-panning shots, and subtly ominous music, do a great job of giving the interior of the ship a genuinely imposing and claustrophobic atmosphere. Sure, the director seems to go a bit overboard with his efforts to keep the audience on edge - with the film's overuse of the classic 'scare chord' standing out as particularly annoying. But, there is still a very genuine level of tension to be found in the crew's desperate efforts to uncover the mystery behind the Captain's death.

If this 'thriller in space' story had been the primary plot-line of Cargo, then the end result would have been something entertaining, if ultimately a little forgettable. At about the half-way point, though, the film attempts a fairly drastic change of focus which, unfortunately, does not work in its favour. At this point, we learn that the cargo aboard the ship isn't actually supplies being sent to a distant space station, at all - it is actually more passengers being kept in cryogenic suspension. We also learn the cargo ship's ultimate destination isn't actually some unnamed space station - but, is actually Rhea, itself. Both of these facts are things that had been carefully hidden from the crew. Why, though? Well, that's the true mystery at the heart of the film, of course. Why would the crew need to be, essentially, tricked into smuggling people to Rhea? And, why does it seems as though someone might be trying to prevent them from getting there?

At this point, the relatively restrained science-fiction thriller that I thought I had been watching, and even enjoying, tried to turn itself into something much grander in scale - a film that suddenly seemed intent on tackling the theme of the future of the entire human race. And, it's at this point that the film began to struggle. It's not actually the ideas that the film suddenly attempts to introduce that were the primary issue for me, though (the reveal of what is actually taking place on Rhea was actually genuinely clever, and very well done) - but, instead, my main issue was with the characters (Laura and Decker, in particular), and the increasingly nonsensical decisions they began to make, in response. As the film neared its end, there were so many moments where I found myself frustrated and bewildered by their behaviour that it actually went some way toward spoiling the film, for me. Ultimately, it made watching Cargo an increasingly frustrating experience.

In the end, then, my major issue with this film wasn't one of plotting - but, instead, one of characterisation. Even looking beyond my increasing frustration with the film's two leads, Laura and Becker, throughout the film's climax, the two also find themselves hurled into one of the most unconvincing romantic sub-plots I have ever encountered. Seriously, it just seemed to come out of nowhere. The two share very little screen-time, for a start - and, when they are on-screen together, they interact like co-workers trying not to get on each others nerves. But, then, there is the moment in which Becker suddenly attempts to kiss Laura - a vaguely unpleasant scene which actually had me wondering if the film was about to take things in a much creepier direction. By the time he tries it again, though, Laura seems oddly receptive - and, the next thing you know, the two are all over each other. I'm not sure how the audience was supposed to feel about this sudden relationship - but, based on what we see, Dr Laura Portmann just wound up looking like a woman who responds favourably to sexual harassment.

Whether it was an issue with the script, the direction, or the actor's performances (or, some combination of all three), there was never a moment in which the two characters displayed anything that resembling natural chemistry - and, the screen-time spent on trying to convince the audience that they did suddenly have genuine feelings for each other just felt uncomfortable. The film would have been much better off without any trying to inject this romantic element.

In the end, though, it is probably better to try to emphasis what the film did manage to achieve, rather than where it stumbled. As the first effort of a young director, Cargo still holds up as a perfectly competent film. It is a film which manages to create, and maintain, a genuinely tense atmosphere - and, it is even able to inject some interesting ideas into its science fiction tale. It is just unfortunate, then, that the film is ultimately let down by the frustrating characterisation of its two leads - which, unfortunately, resulted in an unnecessarily weak final act.

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