Clinging to life in a post-apocalyptic Australian outback, Andy (Martin Freeman) looks for a place where his young child will be safe, even from him. When his wife Kay is unexpectedly bitten, the couple heads inland toward a hospital knowing that the “virus” takes hold within 48 hours. For a time, this ticking clock provides Cargo with a sense of urgency, but over the course of the film, Andy treats his limited time so casually that it’s hard to worry on his behalf. The outback may be hot but surely he could try a light jog?
Martin Freeman brings his glib, articulate charm to Andy’s despondency. A typically delightful screen presence as a sad sack, Cargo undercuts Freeman’s likability with the harsh realities of survival. Tough decisions are made during the post-apocalypse, but even so, Andy proves to be a liar and bit of a dick. The movie doesn’t fully delve into Andy’s moral ambiguity, which serves as one of Cargo’s several underdeveloped elements.
The film shifts between a stark, ominous tone, and a lighter, meta glimpse at the adaptability of human nature. Often, the movie seems undecided on how threatening its zombies truly are. Some undead harmlessly stumble towards the living characters practically begging to be impaled, while other zombies claw ferociously at their targets. Andy’s carelessness is particularly frustrating. There’s a way to watch Cargo and blame the events entirely on his poor decision-making.
Cargo is most interesting in the story’s margins. The world building done through incidental props and tangential characters adds detail to the environment in a way this film’s dialog does not. Many zombie films focus on the point of the outbreak; however, the medical pamphlets and FitBit-like wrist timer allude to a society in Cargo that has had to deal with zombies for quite some time. These zombies aren’t so much horrific as they are a disturbance carrying the threat of death.
This “new normal” is best exhibited by the character Thoomi (Simone Landers) a young girl of aboriginal descent that guides around her zombified father using animal meat and drops of blood. Unwilling to accept his “death,” Thoomi, instead, takes care of her zombie dad. She binds his mouth with a stick, and cages him overnight. She and the other aboriginal characters, including a group patrolling the outback and slaughtering any zombies they come across, are unfortunately treated as afterthoughts to the very ordinary protagonist.
Co-directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke (Ramke is also credited as the screenwriter), Cargo is a feature-length adaptation of their 2013 short film with the same title and premise. That desire to elongate a smaller story is tangible in this version, which feels as episodic as The Walking Dead. The events of the film don’t build organically. Andy wanders into the action rather than doing much to set the film in motion. Even at 105 minutes, Cargo feels overly long.
Despite its occasional innovations, Cargo falls prey to common survival movie clichés. Each character’s fate is forecasted from the moment they appear on-screen. Someone evil takes advantage of the circumstances to make himself (it’s always a man) even more powerful. People are slaughtered for the purpose of emotional manipulation rather than the story. While Cargo aims to subvert the zombie genre, in the end, it falls victim to the undead.
Cargo held its American premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and will debut on Netflix May 18th.