A new release from Netflix, Cargo is the story of a father (Martin Freeman) in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland, who, when his wife dies, becomes infected with a zombie virus and has 48 hours to get his infant daughter to a safe place. It’s the perfect high-concept pitch that became a short film in 2013, which then became a finalist in the Australian Tropfest festival and was a hit after it was uploaded onto Youtube (you can view it at the link down below).
However, I am here to report that feature-length Cargo confirms that not everything can be well-adapted. This is a shame, not only because the source material is so good, and is adapted by the same directors as the short film (Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling) but extending a short into a feature-length film can work, like in the case of 2014’s “Whiplash,” where the longer run time was used to highlight the music and escalating tensions of the film. Cargo has so much potential that it seems like it would be a no-brainer (zombie movie pun intended ) on how to translate it into a longer runtime. All you have to do is heighten the tension, flesh out the characters, examine the different moral conundrums, add some actions, and get a great emotional climax out of all of the buildup. Cargo stubbornly refuses to do any of that, and not to its benefit.
Cargo and this year’s earlier A Quiet Place have a lot in common. The monster aspect, the parenting metaphor, the scruffy-bearded dads trying to lead their families to safety, and babies born at really inconvenient times. A Quiet Place though knows exactly what it wants to portray thematically, and it boils down to a fairly simple message. The film is then elevated by its perfect tension building and trim script. Therefore, it is a wonderfully effective film. Cargo, on the other hand, doesn’t know what it wants to say thematically, and so it doesn’t use filmmaking techniques to say anything either. Instead, the film wanders and is as broad as the themes, doing a lot and yet not much at all. A Quiet Place is more simplistic, but it is better to say something effectively than say nothing.
Cargo wants to meditate on parenthood, survival, fixing this world for future generations, and something about the Australian Aboriginal people. It also wants to stubbornly reject any kind of cliche, so it refuses to raise the stakes in any Zombie-movie style, which results in no stakes and no tension. A better film could be able to avoid cliches and meditate on those themes, but Cargo is not that film.
The film’s only momentum (besides the basic setup) is its star. Martin Freeman shines in his second role this year about a distressed British man in a previously-colonized country. He is the best in the biz at playing disgruntled characters thrown into unusual circumstances, and he does it here with gusto and commitment. It’s exciting to see an actor like him in a genre film like this, and if Cargo was a better movie, I’d hope this would be a catalyst for that change.
I love Cargo in concept. There were so many aspects of it that seemed like it would be my kind of movie. But throughout, I kept waiting, anticipating investment and feelings. By darned Martin Freeman tries, but even he can’t overcome the stifling blandness and brainlessness surrounding him.
Cargo short film: