Monday, August 16, 2010

Film: Cargo

Cargo (Dir: Ivan Engler, 2009, Switzerland, 105 min)

Screened at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

I am told that this is the first science-fiction feature out of Switzerland, but one can guess that director Ivan Engler has seen a few other ones in his time, given that this film includes a quasi-governmental multinational corporation with potentially shadowy motives running the show and a cargo ship in deep space where unexplained irregularities cause the crew to be awakened from cryo-sleep earlier than expected.

Aha — you might be thinking you know where this is going. Well, yes and no. Engler borrows no few elements from the it-happened-in-deep-space subgenre, Alien most of all.1 The more recent Sunshine is also a touchstone, especially in the manner that the plot unfolds.

In this film, we follow medic Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schwabroh), who signs on for the eight-year return trip to a distant space station under construction to finance her emigration to Rhea, the lush and green paradise of choice for those who can afford it as an alternative to the grubby, overcrowded space stations that warehouse humanity in the stead of an ecologically-distressed Earth. After meeting the stock types of her fellow crew-members, we cut forward three years to find her alone on her eight-month "shift" as the sole awakened crewmember overseeing her sleeping colleagues. But when it becomes clear that she's not alone, cue the early awakenings and competing agendas that fuel the plot.

But let's not say too much. We know these elements, so letting them unfold with some fresh ideas is part of the film's charm. And indeed, there's a lot to like here. First and foremost is the rather excellent production design, creating an effectively atmospheric sense of the ship as an always-cold and slowly-wearing-out hulk. Scenes inside the gigantic cargo hold are very well done, giving the impression of the massive scale of the space.2 The look of the movie — along with the pacing that finds a nice middle ground between too-static and too-frenetic — are the prime elements making this well worth seeing.

The acting is decent throughout, though as noted we're getting more "types" than detailed characterizations. And there are a few easy outs of movie logic and bad movie physics. And though this doesn't fall apart in the third act like Sunshine, there are a few cheap devices to ratchet up the tension (hello blinking countdown clock!) that feel forced after the more measured and cerebral early going.

Still, this is a solid feature. And given the dearth of rigourous sci-fi movies, this is well worth seeking for anyone with a fondness for, y'know, cargo ships, cryo-sleep and mysterious goings-on in space.

Preceded by: the ten-minute Haunt (Dir: Kevin Doherty), part of the series of all-Canadian shorts running before features at the fest. Very much a student film, this uses the visual vocabulary of horror movies to look at nightmares and memory. It scores some points for giving the flashbacks a fuzzy VHS look, and is nicely subtle in its intent, but kinda stays stuck in neutral for its length.

1 Including the comic relief characters Prokoff and Vespucci, blue-collar gruntworkers not so far removed from Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto.

2 Although why it's always snowing in there is mildly confusing, given what little I know about meteorology. Although it looks pretty cool. (And, similarly, I was moved to wonder space ships like this always seem to have one hallway on the lower decks that seem to be persistently dripping with rain.)

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