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In Association with
Cargo (2009)
Directors: Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter

review by Ian Sales

When, exactly, did Hollywood lose the plot when it came to science fiction films... after Star Wars (1977)? Or was it later? Certainly the 21st century has seen remarkably few intelligent SF films from Los Angeles based studios. Visual spectacle is all well and good - but at the expense of rigour, logic, characterisation, originality? These days, when it seems so easy to create entire worlds in CGI, it seems Hollywood filmmakers have forgotten to give the same amount of attention to other areas of their movie. Happily, not everyone hews to the Hollywood paradigm when it comes to science fiction films. Cargo, from Switzerland, is perhaps one of the best science fiction films of the past couple of years. It manages to provide both the visual spectacle required by audiences, yet couples that with a smart story and a plausible and logical plot.

The Earth is no longer inhabitable as it is too polluted, and the surviving population now live on giant space stations in orbit. Those who are rich enough have moved to Rhea, a terraformed exo-planet some light-years distant. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) has signed up as medical officer aboard the Kassandra, an interstellar freighter, in order to earn enough to join her sister, Arianne (Maria Boettner), on Rhea. The Kassandra is carrying construction materials to Station 42. But right from the start of the mission, something seems wrong. Attacks by a terrorist group on the stations orbiting Earth means that a security officer, Decker (Martin Rapold), has also joined the Kassandra's crew.

The journey, which will take several years, is spent chiefly in cryo-sleep. Each crew member is woken for an eight-month watch. Six months into Portmann's watch, something draws her down to the cargo hold, where she sees what she thinks is someone else. So she wakes the captain, Lacroix (Pierre Semmler), who is not happy and does not believe her. Decker also wakes up - and admits that his orders require him to be awake whenever the entrance to the cargo hold is opened. The three of them begin a search of the hold, a vast space filled with huge sealed containers.

Portmann witnesses Lacroix fall several levels to the deck. He does not survive the fall. But did he slip or was he pushed? Portmann and Decker wake the rest of the crew - second-in-command Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), computer expert Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen), and crew members Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph) and Vespucci (Michael Finger). At which point, Portmann discovers that the Kassandra is not carrying 'construction materials' at all, but thousands of people in suspended animation. Nor is the ship travelling to Station 42 but to Rhea. There is also definitely a stowaway somewhere aboard...

In truth, Cargo's story does recycle a number of ideas from earlier SF films. But at least it chooses good films. The set-up aboard the Kassandra is pure Alien, even down to the misfit crew, and the fact that one of them is not quite what he seems. The resolution - the film's central conceit - is straight from The Matrix (if that's not a spoiler). But then, genre commentators are often fond of saying there is nothing new in science fiction. Everything has been recycled. It's the spin put on those ideas, the angle of attack of the story, which is paramount. And in that respect, Cargo certainly scores highly.

The production design is also especially good. From the film's opening, a long shot on a huge rotating space station, towards which the camera swoops, it's plain that the directors are thinking big. And indeed the Kassandra itself is an enormous ship. Or rather, its hold is enormous. It is also cold in there, so cold that it actually snows. Some of the scenes in which the crew explore the hold amply display its impressive, and quite frightening, size. There's a consistency of design on display throughout the film - this is a future which appears real and lived-in. The few brief scenes set on Rhea, on the other hand, have an almost Tarkovskian air to them.

Further, Cargo not only passes the 'Bechdel test', it gets the class prize for its answer. Perhaps Portmann is a Swiss Ripley, but the Kassandra's second-in-command Lindbergh is also female, as is computer geek Yoshida. And they have proper roles to play. Not to mention that Portmann is desperate to join her sister on Rhea - not a boyfriend or lover, but her sister. There's an admirable even-handedness to the characters in the film, although Prokoff and Vespucci feel a little clich�d - as does Yoshida initially.

Cargo is a smart, good-looking science fiction film, which sadly feels like something of a rarity of late. If you buy only one science fiction DVD this year, make it this one.


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