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.


Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

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.