Skip to main content

So we have a stowaway on board after all.


Cargo
(2009)

Debut directors Arnold Buchner and Ivan Engler have clearly bust a gut with this low budget Swiss science fiction film (heralded as the country’s first such genre entry). The problem is, it never stops reminding you of the (usually) better movies that are its inspiration. And it’s not just one movie, the way Trancers is a cheap and cheerful rip on Blade Runner. A steady stream of genre films are evoked during Cargo, as if the makers want to cram it full of homages to their favourite SF ideas and produce a coherent and serious-minded feature in its own right.


The year is 2270 and Dr. Laura Portman (Anna Katharina Schwabroh) hopes to join her sister on the planet Rhea. The Earth is toxic and deserted, and the population that hasn’t yet moved to Rhea live on crowded space stations in her orbit.  To pay her way there, Laura takes a job on cargo ship carrying construction materials to a distant station. The trip is four years there and four years back, with the crew taking shifts to stay awake while the others are in cryosleep. Three years and eight months later, Laura is on shift and becomes aware that she is not the only one awake…


There are many individually good little ideas in Cargo, but they get swallowed by the over-familiarity of the whole. The cryosleep experience is a suitably nasty, gloopy business that makes Alien’s hypersleep look like a dream ticket. The ship itself is freezing cold all the time, presumably to preserve power. But, while cinematographer Ralph Baetschmann does a great job with the ship, the sets themselves are seriously indebted to the industrial banality of the Nostromo in Alien (and there probably weren’t very many; no doubt they were constantly taken apart, rearranged or simply lit differently). We even see those revolving yellow lights from the xenomorph franchise. Prior to this, the space station and its occupants went for the rundown Blade Runner feel. And before even that, the lush advert for Rhea comes on like the offworld colony adverts in Blade Runner, or a less satirical promo from Total Recall.


You’ll need to get used to this, because the movie is derivative of nearly every notable science fiction spectacle of the last 30 years (besides Alien, Blade Runner and Total Recall, the other big name is The Matrix; it even tips its hat to Kubrick and 2010). That might not matter so much if it also possessed the vital spark needed to make it distinctive in its own right. That there are five credited writers probably didn't help matters; perhaps each was pressing to shoehorn in their top SF film.


Aided by Baetschmann, the directors ensure their spaceship feels vast and that it drips with drips and atmosphere; the prowling camera and very gradual pull-ins show a directorial duo that has studied the Alien movies all their lives. During the early passages of the film, this solidity ensures that the less than stellar CGI just about carries; much of it is attempting to service the physical spectacle, so the shortcomings are rather more forgivable. Later on, even the most charitable will in the world can’t fail to be aware of visuals the makers of Babylon 5 would have rejected by 15 years ago.


It’s this grounding that ensures the first half of the film is significantly superior to what follows. Deposited in a claustrophobic environment, you don't quite know where it's all leading. The use of verbatim sound effects from Aliens ensures one half-expects a monster to slaver out of the darkness towards our heroine (Ripley, anyone?) While it’s just as well they don’t go this route, the actual reveal is still faintly underwhelming (it’s been telegraphed by a news broadcast in the first five minutes anyway). I won’t spoil what transpires, but the type of plot device seen here has been used so frequently that it’s lost all claim to signalling brainy storytelling. Which is particularly acute in this case, as the protagonists' plan to resolve the situation fails to stand up under the most cursory scrutiny. Hey, They Live! has a more convincing denouement (it also had its tongue firmly in its cheek, which takes the edge off such concerns). Cargo ends up both rushed and not terribly exciting. Everyone's attempting a big finale, but it stutters under the limitations of bargain basement effects and a formulaic script.


While there are strong performances all round, it’s very evident that characterisation-wise the writers never got past the blue-collar Alien vibe. Still, the direction and cinematography show huge promise; hopefully these guys will get a crack at something bigger, better and a bit more original in the future.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

My dear, sweet brother Numsie!

The Golden Child (1986)
Post-Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy could have filmed himself washing the dishes and it would have been a huge hit. Which might not have been a bad idea, since he chose to make this misconceived stinker.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.