By the year 2267, Earth has suffered an irreperable ecological failure. Human refugees crowd orbital space stations, while a lucky few travel to the distant colony world of Rhea where they live in a comparative paradise. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) signs on as medical officer on the cargo ship Kassandra, which is embarking on a four-year haul to an automated space station set for redevelopment as a deep space launch site. Each member of the crew must take a solo eight-and-a-half month shift monitoring the ship’s systems while their colleagues sleeping in cryogenic pods. As she enters her own shift, Portmann begins to fear that she may not be as alone as she thinks.
Cargo is a 2009 Swiss science fiction film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter. It is a compact, claustrophobic deep space thriller, produced to remarkably solid effect on a relatively low budget. It wears its visual influences on its sleeve, notably and obviously Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). It is another film to add to a long list of Alien derivatives, including Event Horizon (1997), Sunshine (2008) and arguably the likes of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989) as well.
They all share similar characteristics: an isolated, claustrophobic setting, a science fiction-based story, and a growing sense of menace as some unknown, largely unseen predator hunts down the human cast. Of those films mentioned, Cargo reminds me the most of The Abyss: not because of any specific story similarities, but because both of them are essentially exercises in bait-and-switch. In both cases it seems there is a malevolent alien force at work, but in both cases the real story winds up being something else entirely. For all of its stereotypical Alien-derivative trappings, Cargo soon becomes less of a horror film and more of a pure science fiction film instead. Viewers seeking quick thrills will probably be disappointed. Those who enjoy a decent science fiction film with interesting ideas will find an awful lot more to enjoy.
The design of the Kassandra is very effective, particularly its cavernous and unsettling cargo bay. It is absolutely massive, and an automated system shifts its various shipping containers around on a regular schedule to avoid them freezing solid. It is very cold in the cargo bay. Indeed it is so cold and so large that it has developed its own eco-system. Characters step inside and it is snowing. The distant sounds of shifting containers makes it sound remarkably ominous. Effective sound design and editing works well to keep the audience on their toes.
Schwabroh makes for a solid and dependable lead, and the supporting cast are mostly very solid as well. The only exception seems to be Martin Rapold as a government-appointed security officer named Decker. Where the other actors feel naturalistic, he feels a little stiff and forced. It is particularly evident in his romantic scenes with Schwabroh. They do not feel organic, and lead to some risible sentimentality during the film’s otherwise decent climax. It would honestly have made for a better film had romance simply been avoided.
Cargo is not a perfect film, but given its production budget and the comparative inexperience of its directors – this was their first feature – it is a fairly impressive piece of work. It is also Switzerland’s first-ever science fiction film. I can only hope someone else makes a second one soon.