Directed By: Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke
Release Date: May 18, 2018
Starring: Martin Freeman, Simone Landers, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter
Back in 2013, Australian filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke unleashed their short film Cargo, an engaging, seven-minute piece set in a world ravaged by zombies. In it, a father is bitten by his recently-turned wife after he wakes up in the aftermath of a car crash in the middle of nowhere and is forced to head out on foot to find someone out there in the world who can protect his baby daughter before he himself turns in a matter of hours. It's a simple yet effective concept, and with the release of the duo's feature-length version of their story, also titled Cargo, they have taken the opportunity to dig their heels in and expand upon the emotional angle their short was only able to scratch the surface of.
In the new Cargo, Martin Freeman plays Andy, the husband of Kay (Susie Porter) and father of baby Rosie, the trio living in a houseboat in the Australian Outback, surviving by staying on the move and away from setting foot on land, where they run the risk of encountering what are, essentially, zombies. After a series of events that sees the family forced to abandon their home in search of a hospital, Andy eventually winds up all alone with baby Rosie, he himself having been bitten and left with only 48 hours to find somewhere safe for Rosie before he succumbs to his new infection.
Where his journey leads him is for the audience to discover along with him, but Cargo does a solid job of conveying both his geographical isolation and ever-growing despair as his clock winds down. Every new person that Andy encounters is a potential someone that can take Rosie for him, but it's never an easy call to make, as each experience is tempered by the realities of the world around them or the personalities of the people he'd be leaving his heart with. For what kindness and generosity he is met with, he also encounters the worst of mankind, from racism and greed to absolute despair, with the option of suicide even put on the table the worse his condition gets.
Andy's path through Cargo isn't an adventure, one where he desperately and heroically fights off the undead, nor is it a horror movie as its superficial genre coating would suggest, as the zombies themselves are relatively unimportant to the narrative at hand. Instead, it is a survival drama that uses its post-apocalyptic setting as a canvass on which to paint a story about finding even a drop of hope in a world that seems to have lost it and of the power of decency. Andy isn't without faults - in fact, the entire situation he finds himself in is predicated on a little white lie he tells his wife early in the film - but he's a kind person who refuses to give up, and the casting of Martin Freeman is a stroke of genius, the always-great actor imbuing the character with his natural charm in a way that makes Andy feel genuine, less a generic, eternally-optimistic hero and more someone struggling to hold himself together underneath the surface because he knows there's far more at stake if he gives even an iota of himself away to hopelessness.
Setting his story in the Australian Outback also lends itself to some great cinematography, the on location work giving Cargo a visual appeal that lets it stand out from so many other entries in the genre. There's not a single city to be seen in the film, let alone the types of huge, undead hordes that tend to fill the streets of such settings in other works, and that serves to further the film's isolationist viewpoint. It also gives us a glimpse into something we typically don't see in movies like this, which is how indigenous groups - in this instance, Aboriginal people - deal with these fictional post-apocalyptic scenarios, with a reversion to traditional ways of life serving as a nice counterpoint to the "every man for himself" mentality we often see in genre stories like this, and Andy's friendship with a young girl named Thoomi opens him up to the idea that Rosie's safety doesn't have to come with guns, concrete, and tall fences.
Unfortunately, the film doesn't lean too hard into that concept, even highlighting a faith versus science theme as a way that the third act might play out that ultimately doesn't really go anywhere, and that's a symptom overall of something that, in my opinion, keeps the film from achieving outright greatness. Cargo has some slick world-building, such as the existence of government-issued med-kits filled with informational pamphlets and tools to help cope with infection that suggests that even though the world seemed to have gotten a handle on things, things still fell apart, or how the slime-covered zombies have a tendency to bury their heads in the sand and hibernate, none of which is vital to the narrative at hand, but when it comes to the things it wants to explore in the tapestry of said world, it doesn't ever push any boundaries. Now, I'm not saying that Cargo needed to be on the level of something grim like The Road, but it falls back on tropes that are a little disappointing, like interjecting a human antagonist midway through the film whose underwritten nature pushes him into almost-cartoonish territory, and glosses over the more interesting, standout aspects of the film, like the aforementioned Aboriginal perspective.
First and foremost, what matters is Andy's story, and Cargo does a great job in delivering something compelling there, one worth investing in from beginning to end. But what could've truly set Cargo apart was complimenting that tale with a perspective the film likes to tease but never goes all in on. As such, because the film isn't a horror movie, fans only looking to see zombie mayhem in its purest form will be disappointed, while those looking for something more, perhaps something truly fresh, may find themselves frustrated that most of what Cargo ends up having to say in its over hour and forty minute runtime was said in seven minutes back in 2013.
That said, Cargo is undoubtedly a film I recommend seeing, even if you're not a fan of the subgenre sandbox it plays around in. It may not live up to its full potential, but that's easy to overlook when the tragic tale at its core of a man simply trying to do right by his daughter is presented in such an earnest way, with Freeman gifting the film with a solid performance that - when paired with the film’s beautiful setting and welcome small scale - justifies this story's jump from short to feature.
Pick a Month: