“You Can’t Lose Hope.” – Etta.
Based on the short film of the same name, which went on to be an online sensation following its release in 2013, garnering over thirteen million views on YouTube alone. Cargo takes a refreshingly character-driven approach to the post-apocalyptic genre, differentiating itself from other films featuring flesh-devouring monstrosities through its secluded setting and Martin Freeman’s terrific lead performance. A combination that will surely satisfy most zombie fanatics, even if the genre’s more mainstream crowd could potentially be disappointed at the exclusion of decaying hordes of the undead, a true sense of dread and a lack of extravagant gore.
Plot Summary: After an epidemic spreads across Australia morphing humanity into flesh-eating monsters, Andy, along with his wife, Kay, and their infant daughter, Rosie, attempt to escape the Outback via the river, making their way to a presumably secure military base. But, when the trio stumble upon an abandoned yacht, Kay is bitten while searching the vessel for supplies, soon passing the virus onto her husband. With his time now running short, Andy has one mission; find a new home for his daughter…
Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo is not only Howling and Ramke’s first feature-length film, but is also Australia’s first-ever production to be spotlighted as a Netflix Original, released globally on the streaming service in 2017. And although Netflix has ventured into the post-apocalyptic genre before with projects like Ravenous and Z Nation, both Howling and Ramke wanted Cargo to be more than just a straightforward story of survival. Subsequently, this led the pair to intertwine social commentary into their zombie-centric story, covering topics ranging from environmental fracking to the exploitation of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. But, in my opinion, the best element of Cargo is its central concept, as the idea of a father having only forty-eight hours to find a new life for his child is a plot enriched with dramatic potential. Moreover, the nocuous outbreak Andy finds himself within serves as the perfect backdrop to juxtapose the qualities one would look for in a capable (and devoted) guardian.
Speaking of the protagonist, Martin Freeman leads the cast brilliantly as Andy, portraying an affectionate father and husband who is determined to protect his family at all costs. An intention which, whilst honourable, often lands him and his loved ones in an even more treacherous spot as Andy refuses to accept when he is out of time. Freeman’s youthful co-star, Simone Landers, unfortunately, doesn’t fare quite as well, as her frail performance frequently results in poignant scenes feeling less sincere. However, Thoomi herself is still an intriguing character, with her subplot concentrating on the demise of her father and the survival of a nearby native tribe, providing a vastly different perspective on the epidemic when compared to Andy’s point of view.
Utilising the vegetation-splotched, sun-parched rural land of the Australian Outback flawlessly, the cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is both varied and visually interesting. Even if, in reality, the Australian wilderness where Cargo was shot threw everything it had at the production crew with South Australia experiencing what was supposedly its worst weather in a century, with floods, power blackouts, torrential downpours, and even a miniature cyclone all occurring during the five weeks of production. Yet, miraculously, the crew didn’t lose even a single day’s worth of filming. This was extremely fortunate on behalf of the filmmakers, given that the remote setting of the narrative is a crucial player in the film’s identity, with its harsh and unforgiving nature hurling countless obstacles at our characters whilst, at the same time, offering them a means to survive.
Managed by four distinct composers, including Michael Hohnen, Daniel Rankine, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu and Johnathon Mangarri Yunupingu. The original score for Cargo greatly strengthens each scene’s emotional significance, almost as if the score is applying a proverbial highlighter to certain moments, with sombre, tenuous tracks like The Grave and Goodbye, flourishingly pulling at the audience’s heartstrings more times than one.
Taking an alternate route to avoid comparisons to zombie designs of the 1970s, seen in classic horror films like Rabid and Night of the Living Dead. Cargo strays away from many of the usual clichés associated with the undead, centring its zombie design around an orange pus-like substance that oozes from the infected’s facial orifices rather than the bleeding open wounds the living dead are commonly known for. This distinction is further emphasised through what we see of their behaviour, as the infected are presented as mindless animals more than they are man-eating monsters, requiring dark/damp areas to incubate during the daytime before feasting on whatever wildlife they can find once night falls. Quickly reminding the audience that what they are witnessing is a viral infection, hence why the infected are even nicknamed; “Virals.”
In summary, even if Cargo‘s story could’ve been executed better with a motley of improvements, I feel Cargo is still a creditable entry into the realm of post-apocalyptic storytelling. Standing as a zombie flick with soul and pathos, which, in turn, makes the living dead formidable once again, not because of jump-scares or excessive bloodshed, but because of the film’s biggest drawcard; its sheer humanity. Telling a story that largely revolves around the notion of human determination, seeing how far an individual will go to protect another, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Rating: 7/10.