Director: Yolanda Ramke, Ben Howling
Writer: Yolanda Ramke
Producer: Samantha Jennings, Kristina Ceyton, Russell Ackerman, John Schoenfelder, Mark Patterson
Stars: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, Caren Pistorius, Kris McQuade, Bruce R. Carter, Natasha Wanganeen, Simone Landers, David Gulpilil
With Australia ravaged by a deadly virus, a desperate father partners with an aboriginal girl to save his infant daughter.
As challenging as it may be for creators to make fresh tracks in post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s equally difficult for seasoned viewers to be inspired to connect with familiarity. “Cargo” contains so much déjà vu drama, anyone who has soaked in several seasons of “The Walking Dead,” George A. Romero’s complete catalogue, and so on and so forth can’t stop from sighing as each setup falls out of the copy machine.
Before dismissively dubbing it “just another zombie flick,” I then consider that “Cargo’s” new home on Netflix markets it more toward a casual crowd. Those who aren’t experiencing the movie’s undead epidemic introspection for an umpteenth time may therefore find its calm character study emotionally intriguing.
For this reason, “Cargo” should probably have two review scores. One recommending the movie to newcomers whose eyes haven’t tired of the subgenre’s tropes. And a second, less charitable ranking for those who’ve previously been down this path and have no reason to return. I split the star rating at the center to accommodate both the full and empty halves of “Cargo’s” incomplete glass.
Staying true to its template of pretending similar stories don’t already exist, “Cargo” takes place in one of those worlds where “zombie” is a verboten term. Infected humans mutate into festering feral forms that crave blood, transmit their virus through bites, and are killed by blows to the head. Yet end credits call them “virals” and onscreen they are referred to as “ghosts,” so add those to the list of movie names for something there has long been a word for.
“Cargo” is also one of those zombie dramas where the outbreak operates only as a backdrop. Virals remain an often unseen threat while human interactions commandeer the story’s core.
Navigating Australia’s ravaged outback in a desperate search for sustenance and supplies, Andy and his wife Kay have the additional burden of caring for newborn baby Rosie. Andy unfortunately has to bear that burden alone when tragedy hits in two ways: taking Kay out of the equation and putting a timer on Andy where he has only 48 hours until his own transformation.
I normally wouldn’t want to repeat myself, but “Cargo” doesn’t have the same worry. Again, virtually anyone who has simply seen “Dawn of the Dead” automatically becomes Nostradamus in predicting every plot point that follows.
With the virus overtaking Kay, Andy confronts the usual dilemma of refusing to euthanize a loved one. Maybe she can be saved, he irrationally reasons. Elsewhere, an aboriginal child named Thoomi thinks similarly of her turned father Willie. Surely a shaman can restore his soul and undo the irreversible infection.
Andy and Thoomi’s paths are of course destined to intersect. First, Andy has to encounter each kind of character across the full range of survival scenario stereotypes. Naturally, this includes a kindly woman still optimistic about the world, a cautious father whose concern for his family makes him wary of strangers, and a mentally unstable cutthroat out solely to save himself at the expense of anyone in his way.
Nothing about any of the above necessarily means the movie chooses poor routes. Everything is just so pat and predictable.
“Cargo’s” typical take on how the loss of humanity affects those who still have it goes down smoother than most predominantly due to Martin Freeman’s passionate performance. A simple screenplay styles Andy routinely. Freeman’s expressive injections of concern, resilience, and compassion put authenticity into the characterization that definitely doesn’t come from the page. His locked-in ability to pull sympathy and empathy almost singlehandedly saves the straightforward story from stagnating in its unhurried pace.
“Cargo” cuts down Freeman’s capacity for earning endearment by predominantly pairing him with an infant. Unable to speak, act, or form any bond with Andy or the audience not based on a cute smile reduces Rosie to a symbolic prop. “Cargo” works in a surrogate through Thoomi’s thread, but emotional weight would be heavier if Andy were purely a father instead of a father figure. Resultantly, “Cargo’s” pulled punch hits with hindered power.
Since “Cargo” cribs from a checklist of common apocalyptic fiction clichés, similarly recyclable comments of criticism apply. The movie is “a mixed bag.” It “isn’t for everyone.” It “doesn’t bring anything new to the table.” Take your pick.
These observational criticisms don’t intend to insist there isn’t intelligent entertainment to be found within the movie’s 100 meditative minutes. Sweeping cinematography, moody music, and strong supporting players combine for a well made effort that is earnestly heartfelt about its understated intentions. Personal mileage will merely vary according to how many times you’ve taken this particular trip before, and whether or not you want to again.
Review Score: 55