Friday, June 18, 2010


Director: Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter
Year 2009

Cargo is a surprisingly epic and intriguing science fiction film from Switzerland that really excels above and beyond its restrained budget to bring a new and refreshing take that still feels at home among the sci-fi greats like the Aliens series, Solaris, and the newer and equally entertaining, Pandorum. Directed by two unknowns, Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, who both collaborated together for their first feature film in Cargo, bring a huge sense of realism and a weighty visual splendor that makes us believe in this fantastic and tangible future world. I had heard so many good things about this film prior to watching it myself and I'm so happy to find that everything that I heard was wonderfully backed up and solidified by these two stupendous directors and their undeniable skills in making a palpable universe that feels legit.

Laura takes a minute to soak in the depressing scenery.

The world of Cargo is a dangerous and desolate one, filled with plague, famine, and terrorism. It's a place where hope is all but lost, that is unless you are one of the lucky ones to earn a place on the paradise planet of Rhea. We are first introduced to this concept by a video clip that loops over and over on a large satellite screen that revolves around a giant floating city that orbits the now uninhabitable Earth. The immense space station is packed with throngs of barely surviving earthlings as they fight off sickness and hope for their chance to earn enough money to acquire themselves a place on Rhea. The society that Cargo introduces us to in this film is so interesting and wildly foreign to our current lifestyles, that it would seem highly improbable and abundantly impossible to our jaded eyes. Fortunately the filmmakers bring us into this world with a subtle push that makes the shocking realizations of this harsh life that more believable and acceptable as truth. We gracefully float up to the grand city and close in on one of the large portal windows to be graced with the unpleasant sight of a crowded and rundown part of the complex, filled with the sounds of the sick and dying as they moan and cry out in a huddle mass of despair.

It's not a pleasant sight and contrasting these overly crowded close quarters with the expansive openness of space in the beginning of the film, hammers home the anxiety and desperation that human kind is being encumbered with in these trying times that the film is placed in. You can feel the urgency that many of these citizens feel as they watch the glowing and inviting video screens as they project the warm images of planet Rhea. The images almost seem to hypnotize them and you can see right off the bat, that this dream of making it to this heaven like planet is at the heart of all human kind and embedded in this futuristic society.

A sprawling space city, in space no less.

The main premise of this outstanding film focuses on our main character Dr. Laura Portmann, played by a mysterious and strangely intriguing Anna-Katharina Schwabroh, as she embarks on an eight year long trip aboard the freighter ship Kassandra. Like many surviving humans, Laura longs to save up enough money to finally leave this desolate life behind and spend the rest of her life on planet Rhea, where her sister and niece and nephew now live. In order for her dreams to come true though, she needs to take one last job as a medic aboard the Kassandra, and then she will have enough to leave her old life behind and embrace all that Rhea has to offer.

I really love the premise and overall concept of Cargo, because it focuses primarily on the human aspects of space travel and the extreme conditions of life among the stars. The idea of mankind's journey out from our comfortable surrounds on Earth and stretching our influence throughout the universe is such an engaging idea that it really interests me when I see a new story being told, especially when it looks as beautiful and well done as this film. Both Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter did an outstanding job with this film, focusing first and foremost on the realizations that Laura's character is experiencing and delving into her inner struggle of reuniting with her sister. The human story in Cargo is both captivating in its representation of two parallel civilizations cast apart by a huge span of distance while also enchanting us in its mysterious set up of this mythical planet that seems heaven sent for the lowly souls living among the dark void of the contained space station to long for.

Laura makes the best of her space flight by sexting a perfect stranger. Pervert.

The assignment that Laura has signed up for is, as I mentioned already, an eight year long tour, but luckily Laura will only be awake for eight and a half months of the entire duration. Her crew must take shifts in a sort of cryostasis inducing tub of goo that sustains their vital signs as they endure the long trek across the galaxy, while one person essentially plays security guard for the rest of the ship. It is during Laura's watch, that something strange begins to happen and this is where the real mystery of the film starts to unravel.

The filmmakers do an excellent job in conveying the isolation that Laura's character goes through as she finds random things to do to help pass the time during her long and lonely shift. These moments of solitude rely heavily on the quiet and ever looping cycles of Laura going through her daily routine. The sequences are highly effective, helping to build up the tension when Laura comes to the realization that she isn't the only one that is awake onboard the ship. The story jumps off the rails as Laura's paranoia and suspicions begin to quickly present us with one mystery after another, until we come to the stark realization that we don't know if anyone can be trusted onboard the massive cargo ship.

They even have sweet flat screens in the future.

Anna-Katharina's portrayal of the character Laura is extremely well done and tremendously sympathetic. From the start of the film, we are placed into her shoes and we share the same viewpoint as her character by almost coming into the world as an outsider. Even though Laura has lived within this world her whole life, we get the feeling that she is experiencing everything, like we are, for the very first time. She stares in wonder as ships leave port at the main capitol city, she marvels at the expansive vistas from her ships rectangular window, and she reacts to the suffering of the masses of civilians on the space station as if she's just been introduced to their horrific lifestyle. It's a strange disconnection that we perceive between Laura and this world that she inhabits, but it's that unfamiliar conveyance that helps us the viewer relate to Laura and the situations that she encounters. Whether this was the intention of the filmmakers or not, it's a nice touch that allows us to gently get to know the world around our main character and possibly enter it hand in hand as we delve deeper into this otherworldly culture. Anna does a marvelous job and I think her presence in the film allows us to better understand and sympathize with the rich plot elements that begin to unfold as she unravels a mystery that goes beyond anyones comprehension within the film.

Cue the sad bastard montage music.

Now many people have compared this film to Ridley Scott's Alien franchise, but I'd have to strongly disagree with that statement, well to a point. This film doesn't rely on the monster or alien premise, but stays on a simpler and more human focused path. Now I'll agree that the atmosphere and the look of the film strongly resembles the visuals that saturated the Alien films and you can tell that the filmmakers respect Ridley Scott's vision of a worn out future, but plot wise Cargo relies on its human characters to provide the mystery and horror that propel the story forward. 

There are many elements that provide that horror spark that could categorize this film in that genre, like the opening of the gigantic cargo bay doors that could house an unwanted intruder or the darkened hallways of the spaceship itself, lined with halo rimmed florescent lights, but all of these elements seem to blend within the science fiction counterparts and run inherently heavy in this isolated tale of a crew in the middle of nowhere threatened by an unseen enemy. The filmmakers use these tried and true conventions of the science fiction world and morph them with the fundamental aspects of a thriller story, where no one can be trusted and the true nature of the unseen enemy is not quite clear and concise. Through this approach, we are given a film that compiles an overbearing sense of paranoia that never seems to let up, all the while unveiling new twists and turns throughout the narrative.

Nothing good can come from walking into a dark and creepy room.

We're also given these moments between Laura and her sister, that really help to flesh out Laura's personality and to embrace that ever growing urge for her to finally meet up with her sibling again. These moments are provided by a clever device in the form of hand held video diaries. Now the distance between Laura's current location and the planet of Rhea are light years apart, so the entries in the diary take days to reach their intended destinations giving us random moments when Laura checks her video deck to view her sister's latest entry. These sequences help to break up the dark moments throughout the film and bring us back to the heart of this film and the underlying reason why Laura is on this perilous journey.

The video diaries also bring to light one of the most compelling mysteries that spring up in this film. As the Kassandra's eight year long journey moves onward and the years dwindle down, Laura notices that her sister is answering her video diary entries with more rapid succession as the days go on. This is confusing because their cargo route doesn't take them anywhere near the planet Rhea, but the fact that her sister is answering so quickly must mean that they are either going in the wrong direction or that someone has been lying to them from the start and their mission is something else entirely. This is just one example of many, where Laura begins to question the intentions of her superiors and wonder if something sinister is in fact going on. I commend the filmmakers for making such a rich story that has layers upon layers in which to work with.

Laura shares some nice Hallmark moments with her sister. How sweet.

As the mystery of what is truly going on begins to spiral out of control and people begin to be killed off by an unseen attacker, Laura struggles with who she can trust and starts to doubt her newfound friendships onboard the ship. You can really feel the tension between characters as they second guess each other's intentions. What is interesting is that we're mainly focused on Laura's character throughout the story and the filmmakers are intent on making her the main focal point on which to solve the unanswered questions, but we get a great sense of the same paranoia and confusion from the rest of the crew. It seems that no one truly knows what is going on and that everyone is in the same predicament as Laura.

The simple fact that everyone seems to be equals in the same harrowing situation only helps to make the end results that much more impactful when we finally are revealed to each individual characters intentions and to their true understandings of the situation at hand. I won't give away the big reveals in this film, but I like the overall conspiracy that they present and I feel that it was quite satisfying and well set up from the very beginning of the film. The world that they have created in this film is based on one simple ideal that could come crashing down once revealed to the masses. It's interesting as hell and it's something that works rather well within the confines of this space thriller.

I can't operate with you watching me back there.

The visual aspect of this film is an achievement in itself. There are so many colors that splash across the screen that you don't really get a clear picture of how diverse the color palette is in this film until you look at the progression of stills from beginning to end. We start out with a very sterile look to the environment. One that clings to the metallic shades of the surrounding walls of the aged capitol city and the inner structure of the spaceship Kassandra. Then as the film progresses and the plot begins to unravel into its roller coaster of a ride, the range of colors begin to enhance until we are left with some very harsh reds and some primary flashes of vibrant and abstract concoctions. You could almost relate this choice of color progression to a dream or nightmare that begins to move so out of control, casting you deeper into a world where nothing is as it seems. It's fantastic to see progress and I believe it helps greatly in the conception of the paranoiac trappings that has guided the narrative on to this point.

It all works so well and it surprisingly succeeds on a more subtle scale then what you would first think. While I was watching the film, I appreciated the abundance of color, but I never once thought of how it had intensified as the film progressed. I just felt the ever growing sense of despair and paranoia from the many mysteries and character reveals that occurred. Looking back, I now can see that the color choices greatly effected me in enhancing all that was going on and helped bring that sense of emotional instability front and center.

Things get a little hot and heavy in this red light special moment.

Much like my other favorite 2009 science fiction film, Moon, we are given sets that seem ripped straight from some of the best sci-fi films of the 70's. From marveling over the visuals, I got a great sense of the architectural wonder of the space station in Sean Connery's Outland. The calm and reflective moments in the environmental loving film Silent Running, seemed catered to the general concepts that later come into play in this film about the Earth and its possible rebirth for inhabiting life. There's even some great zero gravity sequences where our main characters are scaling the outside of the spaceship that play close attention and great respect to the many space walks that are so inherently abundant in this genre.

In fact the entire film had a nostalgic presence and patient pacing that came so naturally to the science fiction films of that time. There's a certain grace to the proceedings of this film, mimicking the slow elegant movements of an astronaut as he hurtles through the cosmos. It's wonderful to see a movie in this day and age that can bring that same aesthetic back into play and make it seem viable again.

Samuel, played by Martin Rapold, as he takes
his fancy banana space suit out for a test drive.

With all of this talk about visuals and nostalgic appeal, I've left out one of the most impressive aspects of this film, the soundtrack. Early on in the film, I was taken aback by how beautiful and ambient the soundtrack was. As the camera swoons across the expansive landscape of the space city we are treated to an abstractly peaceful piece of music that seems augmented from Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack. These tracks are so spiritual in their nature and expressive in their ethereal stride that it perfectly replicates the motions of the camera and the feeling of soaring among the stars. This also comes into play during the isolated portions of the film, where Laura is attending to her eight month shift aboard the Kassandra. The soundtrack brings the film to life and births it in a place and time, one that sets itself apart from other movies of its kind yet seems strangely familiar all the same.

Also the effects of this film are of that same high caliber. You would have never thought that they made this film for a measly five million Swiss francs, which roughly comes to four and a half million US dollars. Everything in this film seems epic and beyond belief, yet it's created and portrayed in such a creative way that it provides a believable structure to the film and its counterparts. The decision to provide a large portion of the films effects to the beginning opening sequence of the gigantic space city, helped plunge us into the world and forced us to believe that from this point on we are inhabiting a living, breathing, and substantial world. From that moment and well after, we never question the authenticity of the spaceship Kassandra or the perilous encounters that Laura finds herself in, but we buy it hook line and sinker because of the well presented opening to this glorious world that the filmmakers have manifested for us. This is one film where from beginning to end, you are never taken out of the moment, not for one second. The immersion that they were able to accomplish with this film is unprecedented and is a great achievement for such a minimally budgeted film.

You got something in your eye man.

Though the film is outstanding in its own right, with amazing visuals, intriguing story, and impressive scope, it might be an acquired taste for some viewers. The pace of this film could be too slow and cumbersome for some people to be able to make it through, but in my mind the revelations that occur in the final portions of this film make it all worth while. We are given a harsh realization on how this society is able to function and we come to find that the fragile stability of this broken world has been built on lies and deception. The fabric that is holding this entire culture in place is the belief in something that doesn't truly exist and is something of a fantasy, much like an atheist would say about religion. Now I'm not saying that the film is as deep as the belief of religion and its metaphorical hold on keeping everyone morally in check, but I believe that the big reveal resembles shades of that spiritual argument and it inherently borrows aspects of that belief. 

Whatever the reasons for the filmmakers choice of building this society from this idea, I love them for it. It works within the walls of this structured narrative and bridges the gaps in providing this world with enough believable reasons for having things the way they are. I recommend watching this film a second time and you'll come to see just how cohesive the story is and you'll notice that everything is set up from the very beginning of the film. The filmmakers have done a tremendous job in providing a tangible realm that seems to work in every aspect and facet of its complicated workings.

Peek a boo you fuck you!

Cargo is a glorious film to behold and one that will have you reminiscing on the great epic science fiction films of years long gone. It's always great to see a film bring back the aesthetics that make stories of this caliber so fascinating and timeless and to be able to accomplish such a feat with such a small budget is commendable at best. From the lush visuals, to the wondrous effects work, to the painstaking efforts that it took to make this film a possibility, you really can't go wrong with this film. It has the heart, the emotional pull, and the abundance of mystery to make it one of the most engaging science fiction films to come out in recent years. If you love your science fiction with layers upon layers of intriguing concepts then I suggest you find a way to view this film as soon as possible. This is science fiction with a soul.

4 out of 5 stars      A Science Fiction Marvel From the Swiss!


  1. thank you, thank you, thank you! finally someone who understands this movie in its entire scale. very nice review!

  2. Thanks for the praise. I love this special little movie, just wish more people could see it and understand its complexities.

  3. Brilliant and well written review! You've done a tremendous job dissecting the film and you've offered a lot of insight that encourages me to have another session with the movie.

  4. Excellent! Always love getting people into the mood of re-watching a great film. Thanks for checking out the review.