I’ve said in a couple of reviews that I’m jaded with the zombie horror subgenre. I can blame The Walking Dead for the saturation of badly made movies and shitty Kindle books that are hasty knockoffs of AMC’s hit show that’s currently shooting its 9th season. Even the show’s producers seems to realize this particular monster is played out – zombies haven’t been a major component of The Walking Dead for years, and when they do appear, the scenes mostly feel like cutscene filler. There’s nothing you can really do with this particular movie monster, though people still try to squeeze some juice from it.
Two movies that have tried to do something different in the recent past are Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a father trying to deal with the fact his daughter has been infected – this is a movie that really could have worked, but it was handled ponderously. Somewhat more successful was The Girl With All The Gifts, a fresher take on the concept with a terrific performance by its young lead – a movie that seemed to me more like I Am Legend, than that awful Will Smith adaptation ever was. Joining these two is the Netflix release Cargo, starring Martin Freeman.
Setting out on a similar thematic path as Maggie, Cargo is a small story set within a much larger story. Freeman stars as Andy, husband of Kay (Susie Porter) and baby Rosie. At the outset of the story, they’re living a peaceful, though day-to-day existence on a houseboat drifting down the river in rural Australia. The world has seemingly been ravaged by a disease that turns people into zombies, but that’s the depth of backstory here. Some biomedical supplies indicate that some time has passed since the infection began to take hold – an element I liked a lot, since it took away a lot of the need for exposition. Realizing supplies are low, an abandoned yacht, and the possibility of supplies within, proves too enticing to ignore, and ultimately tragedy ensues, forcing Andy and Kay to land and seek medical help. Since the trailers and plot give the story away, it’s no spoiler to know that Andy becomes infected, and has to spend his remaining 48 hours of life finding a safe place for Rosie.
While I like Freeman, I can’t say I’m a fan as such. I feel that most of the characters he plays are milquetoasts of a sort, passive and second-fiddle to the more imposing characters around him. I wasn’t sure if he had the chops to carry a feature on his shoulders, but the truth of it is he’s pretty good here. It’s a strong performance, and while he brings his trademark vulnerability to Andy, that side is focused on the primary goal of ensuring the survival of Rosie – when he needs to step up to the plate and do what he needs to do to achieve that goal, I feel it was step up for the actor too.
Like Maggie, Cargo is slow and quiet as Andy’s clock ticks down to his ultimate fate, but it’s punctuated by a section of the story when he meets Vic, a survivalist type, and Lorraine, his near-captive female companion. For some reason, I wasn’t completely keen on these characters, even though I liked the reveals that explain each other’s polar-opposite motivations. This section provides a gateway to the end of the movie by reintroducing a character seen only briefly in an earlier sequence, Thoomi, a young Aboriginal teen who was part of a larger group, now separated. When the movie pares the characters down to just Andy, Thoomi, and Rosie, this points the way to the end: in helping Thoomi reunite with her group, Andy hopes they will provide the safe place for Rosie that’s so far been elusive.
But it’s also here that the movie evolved into something different for me. I’m a huge fan of certain Australian movies of the 70s – Nic Roeg’s Walkabout, and Peter weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and The Last Wave. These are all movies that have a strong sense of weirdness about them, an otherwordliness that taps into the concept of The Dreamtime (which you can read about here, if you like), and while Cargo at no time attempts to go in that direction (disappointingly, I thought), there was enough connective tissue in Act 3 to remind me strongly of those superior Australian movies. It doesn’t hurt that veteran Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil appears as one of Thoomi’s group, as he also appears in both Walkabout and The Last Wave. Even though the movie doesn’t stray into the Twilight Zone, it does share one aspect with those other movies, and that’s a social commentary on the treatment and marginalization of the Aboriginal people subsequent to Australia’s colonization by the British Empire, and a sense that, primitive as they were in comparison, they were greater custodians of the planet than we the in the “civilized world” have proven to be.
The end of the movie is as poignant as one increasingly expects it to be, and contains a small measure of hope. There’s what could be called an “action” scene as the final moments run down, but it felt a little cheap and poorly realized and not completely necessary, reminding me a little of the end of Howl – essentially a fog machine being used to mask the cheap effects, but the movie ends with a literal handoff from one culture to another, and a positive sense that the survival of the human race relies on a return to simpler times.
© Andrew Hope, 2018
Links to other reviews mentioned here