“It’s incredibly cold here. You could hardly imagine it.”
Switzerland produced its first dystopian sci-fi film under the direction of Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter in 2009, claiming a place among the stars. It was nine years in the making, and production ran on a low budget. Cargo does not stray far from the standard science fiction themes, but such extraction is hardly an issue for fans of the genre, always looking for the next thrill in outer space. The suspenseful trailer and misleading tagline, reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), set the scene for a mysterious exploration of life outside Earth in the distant future.
Following the destruction of planet Earth in 2267, humankind survives in overcrowded space stations dreaming of Rhea, a paradise planet that is both difficult and expensive to reach. To migrate and reunite with her family on the advertised promised land, Dr. Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job aboard Kassandra, a cargo freighter transferring building materials to unmanned Station #42. During her shift, Portmann hears strange noises coming from the cargo bay, which force her to awaken the rest of the crew from their cryogenic sleep and face what’s lurking in the cold darkness.
We see a dystopian world, where humans have become fugitives scattered in the hostile deep space, while the government fights ongoing terrorist attacks from the so-called Machine Strikers. The overall idea, despite its blatant similarities to oh-so-many other iconic films, is solid and ambitious enough to support a well-rounded mystery. This is achieved mostly by turning it into a conspiracy tale with both existential and political parameters. However, the film loses pace and track in its third act, leaving much to be desired in terms of dialogue, character development and engaging action.
The visual details of the space station and use of SFX are worthy of praise considering the low budget, while glimpses of distant Rhea remind one of autumn in Switzerland. The filmmakers manage to strike a vivid contrast between the unattainable heaven and the bleak interior of the Nostromo-like freighter, with its metallic, hollow design and ominous journey.
Yet, not all that you see is real, and that is the principal concept explored in Cargo. It starts off with a floating billboard ad, Blade Runner (1982) style, before it explores the conflict between the real and virtual world – clearly inspired by Abre los Ojos (1997), and subsequently The Matrix (1999).
Despite the unoriginal story and many clichés, the reason for the film’s poor rating lies in the details: the inconsistent acting that ranges from zero emotion to dramatic coronas, the forced romance towards the end, the illogical plot holes that bypass the rules of physics, outdated orange space suits and archaic technology.
Certainly though, to a devoted fan of sci-fi, Engler’s first feature film will seem like an interesting, experimental approach to spaceship horror. It offers a beautiful set and the right atmosphere, paving the way for better sci-fi Swiss productions to come.