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AFI FEST 2010 Review: CARGO

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
November 7th, 2010

Rating: 2.5/5

Writers: Arnold Bucher and Ivan Engler (story and screenplay), Patrik Steinmann, Thilo Röscheisen, Johnny Hartmann (screenplay)
Directors: Ivan Engler, Ralph Etter
Cast: Anna-Katharina Schwabroh, Martin Rapold, Regula Grauwiller, Yangzom Brauen, Maria Boettner

In Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter’s ambitious take on a sci-fi space epic, CARGO, the Swiss duo almost hit cosmic paydirt, but an overstuffed second half and too many lingering questions keep the film from being more than just impressive in its attempt.

The film is set in a not-so-distant future where the Earth has been destroyed, presumably by human greed and overconsumption. The majority of the world’s population has decamped to glittering, gigantic space stations that orbit the dead Earth, existing only has glorified holding pens for an orphaned people. There is, however, some hope for the world’s refugees – the planet of Rhea, colonized by the lucky few who get to begin life anew. Rhea is inhabited by those fortunate enough to receive a Rhea visa, or those rich enough to afford to buy their way on to the paradise planet.

Which leaves us with Dr. Laura Portmann (Anna Katharina Schwabroh). Laura has signed on to crew on a cargo ship for eight years in order to pull together enough cash to join her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner) and her young family on Rhea. But as Laura’s ship (and her skeleton crew of cosmic cohorts), the Kassandra, hurdles through space to deliver a payload to a distant station, we soon realize all is not as it seems and the crew is not alone on their hulking ship – not alone at all.

CARGO clearly draws inspiration from a myriad of sources – ALIEN will be the first to stand out to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of sci-fi flicks, from its female protagonist to the slippery tension of an interstellar intruder. But there are also touches of TERMINATOR, SUNSHINE, THE MATRIX, “Battlestar Galactica,” and even a heavy dose of WALL-E. That’s certainly a fine mix of filmic touchstones, but as these different sources collide, CARGO loses its own voice and devolves into well-tread space tracks.

However, for a film that is Switzerland’s very first attempt at science fiction cinema (and one that took almost a decade to make), there are a number of truly pleasant surprises in CARGO, the least of which being just how damn good it looks. In CARGO, Engler and Etter endeavored to craft a film on an epic scale, and CARGO looks the part at every turn. Its very design is visually arresting and meticulously made – from the large scale space stations, to the inventive details of the Kassandra’s cargo hold – it is all impeccably imagined and executed. Space geeks will no doubt find fault with some of CARGO’s more technical aspects (inter-space bombs, the design on the cargo hold, jetpacks, just to name a few), but even they will be hard-pressed to fault the scope of the universe created within the film.

CARGO clocks in at almost a full two hours, but it would benefit immensely from a judicious pruning as we slide into its second half. After setting up its very ALIEN-esque tone and plot within an effective and engaging first half, the film falters on its tension and its last hour plunges into a directionless mishmash of different threads that all echo back to some of those previously-mentioned influences, along with a hefty mix of attempted commentary on such topics as religion, government, corporate greed, environmental terrorism, even the iron fist of TSA agents. Had CARGO held to the precise vision of its first sixty minutes, I marvel at what we may have seen blasting across the screen.

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