Cargo is a slow burn zombpocalypse drama that hits some familiar beats, yet there's a rich humanism at its core that makes the journey meaningful.
Zombie apocalypse dramas are common in the age of The Walking Dead, but every so often one like Cargo comes along and finds a fresh story to tell. Adapting their original 7-minute short of the same name (which became a viral hit after its premiere at the 2013 Tropfest short film festival), Cargo directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke deliver a thoughtful and moving tale of survival in their feature debut here. Martin Freeman is the film's headliner and emotional anchor, but its Australian creatives and context are as essential to the movie's success as its talented leading actor is. Cargo is a slow burn zombpocalypse drama that hits some familiar beats, yet there's a rich humanism at its core that makes the journey meaningful.
Cargo takes place in the aftermath of a pandemic that transforms the infected into flesh-hungry monsters within 48 hours and leaves much of Australia ravaged in its wake. Married couple Andy (Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) manage to survive the initial outbreak by taking shelter on a houseboat with their year-old daughter Rose and making their way up-river to a safe zone in the aftermath. When tragedy strikes the small family, Andy is left racing against time to find someone else to protect Rose and raise her to survive in this strange new world.
Among the people that Andy encounters on his increasingly desperate search is Thoomi (Simone Landers), a young indigenous girl and the potential key to Rose's survival. Unfortunately for Andy, Thoomi wants nothing to do with him or his daughter and has bigger concerns of her own to take care of. Alone and with no one else to turn to, the pair are forced by their circumstances to work together in an effort to achieve their goals... and maybe even find some hope for what tomorrow may bring.
There are some interesting parallels between Cargo and last month's A Quiet Place, in that both are horror survival films which tap into the fears of being a parent by exploring what it would be like to raise children in a world overrun by literal monsters. Cargo further serves as a parable for the plight of Aboriginal Australians and examines what would happen if, in the wake of a global catastrophe (here, a zombie outbreak), their way of living actually gave them a survival advantage. Howling and Ramke, who also wrote the screenplay, consulted heavily with Australia's indigenous community while developing the film and it shows in a good way. Cargo avoids stereotypes in its portrayal of Aboriginal people by instead presenting them as three dimensional players with agency and customs all their own. The story here is still told from the perspective of a white lead, but Thoomi in particular is so well-developed that she almost shares protagonist duties with Freeman.
Cargo also wrings a fair amount of tension out of its Australian outback setting. The country's unique geography and sparse landscapes (crisply photographed here by cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson and his crew) heighten the characters' sense of isolation in the film and create a rich sense of atmosphere. Further, Howling and Ramke generate a surprising amount of suspense through minimal sound editing (see those A Quiet Place comparisons again) and simple set pieces based around the remnants of civilization in the movie (ghostly towns, abandoned tunnels, and so on). The way Cargo paints this world in shades of earthy brown and orange begs favorable comparison to other notable low-budget Australian genre films about life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (The Rover being an example from recent years).
One area where Cargo struggles, admittedly, is the overarching narrative and its reliance on familiar genre tropes. Most of the film's twists and turns (especially a big development in the first act) will be easy to spot for anyone who's familiar with other famous works of pop culture about life in a post-zombie epidemic world. The closest thing Cargo has to a villain is Vic (Anthony Hayes), a character who shows up part-way through the film and is likewise the sort of power-hungry toxic alpha male personality one expects to find in this sort of zombpocalypse story. These elements work well enough on their own in Cargo, but at the same time they prevent the film from breaking its genre's mold the way it aspires to do.
For the most part, Cargo is driven more by its characters and performances than plot. Freeman does much of the heavy lifting here (somewhat literally) and once again demonstrates that he's a compelling character actor who can vanish seamlessly into most any role. Newcomers Landers is also good in her screen debut as Thoomi and has a sense of naturalism that befits the plucky character. The relationship that forms between Andy and Thoomi arises organically from their experience together and never strains credibility, making it all the easier to become equally invested in both of their fates. Most every person in the film is afforded some real humanity at that, including Kris McQuade and Caren Pistorius as two kindly women (Etta and Lorraine) that Andy encounters at different points on his quest.
As oversaturated as the zombie genre is across multimedia at the moment, there's enough that's different (and good) about Cargo to set it apart from the rest of the crowd. It's a quiet genre film that favors drama over thrills, but it's not trying to beat the big summer movies at their own game either and makes for better counter-programming for it. Cargo is also the sort of film that might've gotten lost in the fray among this season's more buzzed-about indie offerings; something that makes Netflix the ideal platform for it. Those who are game to stay in and watch Martin Freeman take on the zombpocalypse are thus advised to do just that.
Cargo is now available for streaming through Netflix. It is 105 minutes long and is not rated, but is intended for mature audiences.
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