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August 2010

Cargo

cast: Anna-Katharina Schwabroh, Martin Rappold, Regula Grauwiller, Yangzom Brauen, and Pierre Semmler

directors: Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter

100 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 16:9
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
review by Max Cairnduff

Cargo

Cargo is two rare things: a Swiss science fiction movie and, almost as rare, a thoughtful science fiction movie. Anna-Katharina Schwabroh plays Dr Laura Portmann. She lives on a vast space station orbiting a dead Earth. Her sister has found a home in the idyllic colony world of Rhea and, if Dr Portmann can just make enough money, she can join her there and leave behind the cramped and diseased conditions of Earth orbit.

In order to make that money, Dr Portmann signs on for duty aboard a cargo ship, the Kassandra, which is transporting construction materials to 'Station 42'. The journey is an eight year round trip. The crew rest in cryogenic storage with only one awake at a time. They take turns for eight and a half month solo shifts.

When Dr Portmann wakes for her shift, she soon starts to suspect something may be wrong. She notices signs that she may not the only person awake, even though the rest of the crew are still in cryo-sleep. She wakes the captain and a security officer who is on board to protect the ship from possible terrorists. They begin to investigate, and from there it becomes apparent that the Kassandra's mission may not be as its crew understood.

Cargo is a film conscious of its antecedents. The opening shots are strongly reminiscent of Blade Runner. The security officer (played by Martin Rappold) is named Decker, a clear reference to Deckard. There is the opening promise of a better life on an off-world colony. Alien is a common touchstone too. The Kassandra has the air of the 'Nostromo' inside, poorly maintained with a working class crew, and there is even a deck with water dripping from its ceiling.

Cargo is more than just cinematic references though. Despite its low budget it is a consistent and frankly impressive depiction of life in space. The pace is slow and there is a definite sense of the crew's isolation and the monotony of their shifts. This is very much a film that builds on atmosphere rather than shocks.

The cast is uniformly on form and in perhaps another reference to Alien is particularly rich with strong female roles. There's not only Schwabroh as Portmann but also Regula Grauwiller as hardnosed second in command Lindbergh and Yangzom Brauen as Yoshida, the ship's computer operator.

The film is not however flawless. The number of allusions to other films led me, at times, out of the fiction and into a game of recognising the reference. There are some logical holes in the plot and there's at least one scene where Portmann (immediately after she's mysteriously rescued from an attacker) displays such a bizarre lack of curiosity as to what just happened that it threw me right out of the film. All of that said, I guessed the ending wrong and, when you've seen as many SF films as I have, that's always cheering.

If you have the patience for a slow German language film (with subtitles) in which a lot of time is spent with characters walking on their own in darkened corridors, this film has a lot to recommend. Directors Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter have given a lot of thought to their sets and their use of CGI, and the result is a low-key but largely persuasive vision. This is a film all about the atmosphere and at times it has a real beauty to it.

You've probably seen the plot before (I've been careful here to avoid spoilers, but it won't take you too long to work out what's really going on). There are places where it doesn't quite make sense. For all that, though, it's a deliberate attempt to put intelligent SF on the screen and there's just not enough of that out there.



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