Directors: Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke
Cast: Martin Freeman, Simone Landers, Susie Porter, Anthony Hayes, Kris McQuade, Caren Pistorius, Natasha Wanganeen
Zombie movies have been all the rage for quite some time now, and attempts are constantly being made to refresh how the creatures, whether of supernatural or biological origin, come to exist, thrive and generally threaten human existence. Cargo is yet another take on this horror subgenre, looking not only at how to differ its zombie-like people from other incarnations, but also how it affects specific people in specific situations. Not to mention providing some social commentary surrounding indigenous people and the way the earth is treated. So going off of this, how does Cargo fare in the pantheon of zombie movies?
Based on a 2013 short film, Cargo is Australia’s first theatrical Netflix release, and it utilises its Australian setting to great effect. The story follows Martin Freeman’s Andy as he is bitten by a ‘Viral’ and has 48 hours to find a suitable home for his one-year-old, Rosie (played by twins Lily Anne and Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins), before becoming a Viral himself. Along the way he meets many different people in different situations, trying to survive or succumbing to consequences. One of those people is young Thoomi (Landers), an Aborigine girl trying to keep her infected father safe from her family (who destroy Virals) until she can restore his soul, believing he will be normal again once she achieves this. Together Thoomi and Andy find ways to help each other whilst forging a friendship through the trust they have to have in each other.
When George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead popped up in 1968, it started something that catapulted Romero into the horror hall of fame and cinema was essentially changed in ways that are unfathomable until something of that calibre is created. Cut to fifty years and countless movies that directly and indirectly credit Romero later and we arrive at Cargo. In the same way Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ignited discussions (whether he intended it or not) surrounding the Vietnam War and racism, Cargo raises issues about how the world is treated environmentally. Without directly referencing their creatures as ‘zombies’, but rather ‘Virals’, Ben Howling and co-director/writer Yolanda Ramke have used their film to comment on the issues surrounding the pollution of the earth (as the Virals are contaminated in a similar way biologically rather than the oft-used supernatural way) and the way it is still respected by many indigenous people and disrespected by others who have forgotten where they (we) come from. Of course it still props up some elements of horror, with minimal shock tactics and tension-building cinematography and sound, but unlike many zombie-based movies, it goes beyond that to become something more than it may initially seem.
It has to be said that, more often than not, when Martin Freeman acts, it’s generally as Martin Freeman. At times it can be difficult to differentiate his characters, much like Hugh Grant or John Wayne. Typecasting has often been his downfall, and despite branching out into things like The Hobbit and the MCU he still seems to come across as very two-dimensional. His role as Andy, however, seems to bring something out of Freeman that isn’t often seen; it’s his portrayal as a father that seems to be the source of his new-found branch of emotional depth. Perhaps because he is a father himself in reality, Freeman’s performance as Andy makes for a believable story arc that is easy for audiences with an ounce of heart to invest in. Andy is fiercely protective and loving of his little girl and it shows. Howling and Ramke were even able to capture some beautiful moments between Freeman and either Lily Anne or Marlee Jane, particularly towards the end, that will tug at the strings of that ounce of heart. And the young Simone Landers proved to be the perfect counterpart to Freeman, their friendship off-screen easily reflected on-screen. Another talented youngster, Landers brings innocence and naivety with knowledge and a little wisdom to Thoomi, something that balances out Andy’s realism and inability to navigate the Australian wilderness.
Cargo is one of those movies that feels like Ramke had chosen her themes and subject matters before deciding on a genre with which to symbolise them. Rather than create something more like a documentary or an in-your-face expository piece of fiction based on fact, she’s created something that many filmmakers now have to do in order to get their message across: utilise a genre that is popular enough to attract an audience. It’s a tough one to do with horror, as most people will watch in the hopes of having a few frights and enjoy being a bit terrorised. Cargo doesn’t quite reach the levels of other zombie-based horror, as the threat of infection isn’t really all that threatening. When bites occur within the first fifteen minutes or so, that’s kind of the most terrifying that it gets, and even then it’s pretty PG. It’s possible that this is what earned it a Netflix rather than cinematic release, as it’s a bit more indie than it is commercial. It’s entertaining enough, and pretty much does what it says on the tin, but its overall intent is really Ramke’s social commentary rather than a by-the-numbers horror movie.
In the grand scheme of zombie movies, Cargo won’t be up there with the best of them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be way down the list. It’s somewhere suitably in the middle, where it’ll entertain for the most part whilst hopefully giving audiences something to think about. It shows off some of the beautiful yet extremely harsh Australian outback and gives a small but important voice to Aborigine life and beliefs. It can be quite a grounding film, if you give it the chance to be, but it’s not going to be one of those that will last. At some point another Netflix production will come along to take its place, hopefully one with just as important a message within, otherwise it would be a small shame to lose something that has its own importance.