Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke
I know this has been out for a while, though as both a zombie film and a Netflix exclusive it’s never been top of my to watch list. However, I want to ensure my brother gets value for money with his subscription, so I figured watching it is the least I could do. The blurb is also dead interesting. Based on a short by the same directorial team (Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke), it follows Andy (Freeman): an unlucky guy who is both widowed and infected on the same day. Bummer. With two days left ‘til the infection (aka zombie virus) turns him, he’s got to search the Australian wilderness for someone willing to protect his baby daughter. Along the way, he encounters the Aboriginal teenage girl, Thoomi (Landers) who is trying to keep her brains-hungry dad alive. Talk about a thematic parallel!
The best thing about Cargo is its concept. The idea of a father having 48 hours to find replacement parents for his kid is an immediately interesting one with much dramatic potential. For instance, Andy weighing up could-be parents, as the ticking clock increases the temptation to settle so as not to risk himself turning on Rosie. The end of the world could also have provided a backdrop to juxtapose the qualities we’d look for in a guardian during a crisis with the ones we’d want outside it. But disappointingly, Cargo doesn’t quite live up to its premise, with the promising dilemma fuelling a fairly simple morality tale. Broad characterisation provides a simple ethical framework, with the clear poles of good and bad defined by the usual benevolence vs greed. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear writer Yolanda Ramke ask who the real zombies are.
Sticking to a classical formula doesn’t have to be a problem. And like the threat themselves, these themes keep coming back because the set-up is a neat way to force modern humans outside civilisation. However, writers employing them ought to be smart about it, and keep in mind the zombie apocalypse is only as interesting as the people trying to survive it. Unfortunately, Vic (Hayes) is the worst kind of villain: a functional one. We know everything there is to know about him within minutes of meeting him – he’s power-hungry and taking advantage of a bad situation a la every baddy on The Walking Dead. Given he’s not in it much, this could be forgivable. However, the way he shows up again later, when the plot needs an obstacle, commits the sin of making the vast Aussie outback seem oddly small. Which is frustrating, since the epic location is about the film’s most novel contribution to its sub-genre. The numerous panoramics of its dynamic valleys and forests give an effective back to nature feel: humanity returning to its roots.
The use of Aboriginal art and customs is also unique among its predominantly urban American peers. Their depictions still sometimes lapse into the noble/ magical savage tropes, with the community fading in and out like ghosts to echoes of generic mystical music. However, with Thoomi’s relationship to Andy being so central to the film, and her often leading the way, it thankfully evades a patronising white saviour narrative. From an early point, he’s humbled by her, and it’s rewarding watching them go from fellow survivors to friends. In a debut role, the bug-eyed but determined Landers is nothing short of exceptional. It also features Martin Freeman in a career-best performance, giving a quietly intense pathos that makes the extraordinary circumstances emotionally believable. I’ve personally never warmed to him as an actor, finding him to be too earnest and everyman whether he’s playing a Hobbit or Holmes buddy, but this is a very different and more mature role for him. Andy’s love for his daughter, and the sacrifices he would make for her and Thoomi, underline each scene, culminating in a deeply moving – if slightly rushed – ending.
All in all, we have yet another good addition to the zombie canon, and I think it could have been a great one. The story, the exciting opening third, and the ending show so much promise that I can’t help but still be disappointed by a film I had an otherwise good time watching. But to be clear though, for fans of zombie flicks I think Cargo tee-hee delivers.
Cargo has been available on Netflix for over a year.