Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 28, 2010 4:46 pm 
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Asleep in space

Cargo is the first Swiss science fiction film. It takes place in space, on a great interplanatary transport ship, and its events call to mind Aliens, Sunshine, and Moon. It's a story of suspicions, unveiled conspiracy, revolt. The sets and the effects are grandiose. "Is this the great new Sci-Fi space epic?" publicity teasers ask. Well, no, it sure isn't. It's an overly-familiar, under-stimulating movie that winds up being very hard to care about or even follow, because the plot doesn't jell and the characters aren't fleshed out. The fancy accoutrements are just empty decor for a film that in toto is too underwritten.

The heroine of Cargo Laura (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) is a doctor who has joined the ship's crew to earn money, presumably lots of it, for working on a journey to a remote location that will take light years to get to and from. The time is about 200 years from now, the Earth is largely uninhabitable, and the lucky humans inhabit a halcyon far-off planet called Rhea which has been given a makeover so that it somehow duplicates the earth at its healthiest and most fertile, as we see in scenes shown in messages from Laura's sister, who lives on Rhea. Only the rich can go there but Laura hopes to make it.

Things sound pretty familiar. Everything is controlled by large corporations. There is a threat of terrorism on these cargo flights. Consequently a man called Dekker (Martin Rapold) -- perhaps a homage to Blade Runner -- comes on board as a sky marshall counterterrorism officer. There's a tight-lipped mean lady called Arianne (Maria Boettner ) who takes over when the captain, Lacroix (Pierre Semmler) gets shot. I didn't catch the captain's name; he wasn't around long enough.

The ship runs automatically, and only one crew member need be on duty at a time. The rest put breathing masks on and are lowered into cryo-sleep in a kind of thick soup that freezes them off till their services are needed again. When Laura is on duty, she hears loud noises and realizes somebody else is out there in the storage area. She investigates, and soon learns -- and read no further if you don't want to know what happens -- that the ship doesn't contain normal cargo at all. It's full of cryo-sleeping people wired in a Matrix-like system and the ship is docked somewhere, broadcasting messages to people (somewhere, we don't really know very well where everybody is) because, doggone it, Rhea is just a simulation! The actual Rhea was an experiment that failed miserably, but the big corporation that runs things wants people to believe in it so they'll invest in going out to live in space stations. Eventually Laura finds out a few more things -- most importantly, that parts, at least, of Earth actually are inhabitable again, and the corporation is trying to keep humans from going back to live on their own home planet.

All this is very sketchy. Most of the film's time is spent with banging around in and out of the space ship. The latter part, where several people float around outside and dock with miraculous precision for no comprehensible reason, is embarrassingly badly executed. Cargo fails for several reasons. It is so derivative that it arouses comparisons that are never to its advantage. When one thinks of Duncan Jones' recent film Moon one realizes how a simple, low budget space travel film can have much more psychological depth than this. A moment's thought of Kubrick makes one realize that this grandiosity is in fact shallow and without real resonance. Remember the opening scenes of Aliens or the closing ones of Sunrise and you can see these characters and their interactions aren't made three-dimensional or interesting enough. You can't care about Cargo's characters and their conflicts because you have not learned who they are. It's unfortunate that they keep going off to cryo-sleep. Scenes were needed to show who they are, what they do, how they interact. Cargo puts the viewer into vicarious cryo-sleep after a while.

The film's best moments occur when we are floating around in the ship's vast hold with clanging containers moving inexplicably but menacingly around. Perhaps if the filmmakers had used a much simpler plot with mostly wordless action they might have made something suspenseful and beautiful. Cargo is of limited interest to any but hard core Sci-Fi fans, some of whom will enjoy the homages and, I guess, the clanging cargo containers.The Swiss can go back to making chocolate and watches.

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2010. One can see why it was included. It's a novelty, of sorts.

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