I’ll admit it, I’m tired of zombies. For more than a decade they’ve been the go-to monster for indie films, tv shows, and Hollywood horror movies. Zombies are everywhere and I think it’s time we gave them a break. I think it’s time we gave ourselves a break. Let’s all give ourselves a year or two off zombies and regroup in 2020. Because right now, it’s difficult to enjoy films like Cargo and that’s a shame. Released a few years later or earlier, I think Cargo would have made a big splash. But it was released in 2018 and it’s impossible to appreciate a big splash when you’re being swallowed by a tidal wave. Especially if that tidal wave has zombies in it.
Cargo is a zombie movie of the post-apocalyptic variety, with the Australian countryside serving as the canvas for the film’s hellscape. The Australian desert has been standing in for the apocalypse for decades and some gorgeous cinematography from Geoffrey Simpson reminds us why. Martin Freeman plays Andy, a man attempting to get his wife, Kay (Susie Porter) and baby girl Rosie to safety. Things go wrong very quickly and soon Andy finds himself alone with Rosie in the middle of a hostile landscape. Even worse, he’s been bitten and has just 48 hours to get his child to safety.
As far as twists on the genre go, Cargo’s is decent. It doesn’t try to artificially blend two narratives together and isn’t interested in being novel for its own sake. By infecting Andy early in the film, screenwriter Yolanda Ramke shifts the audience’s emotional investment away from the protagonist’s own survival and places it entirely on his objective – get Rosie to safety. Andy is already the sacrificial lamb; he’s not fighting the zombies, he’s fighting the clock. Which is precisely why it’s so frustrating that Cargo seems determined to take its time.
Cargo’s plot follows a relatively simple formula – Andy travels to a place, meets someone, sees if they’re fit place to care for his daughter, determines they aren’t, and moves on. Some of these characters are more archetypal than others. Perhaps the most familiar is the scavenger without morals, Vic (Anthony Hayes), who uses captured aborigine as bait to draw out zombies for the slaughter. One such piece of bait is Thoomi, played by newcomer Simone Landers, a young girl attempting to keep her zombified father safe until a medicine man can cure him.
The aboriginal element is the most interesting in the film and it’s a shame it comes into the picture so late. The entire film feels one or two drafts away from being done. Directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have made a perfectly adequate zombie film, but its style is incongruous with its own premise. Cargo wants to have the stakes of Crank meets The Walking Dead but the pace of The Walking Dead meets Walkabout. Now both of those movies sound awesome. But they inherently don’t go together.
Even with the script inconsistencies, the performances are strong. Martin Freeman reminds us that he can damn well helm a film and I wish he did it more often. The breakout is Simone Landers, who gives a soulful performance as Thoomi, almost singlehandedly giving Cargo its X factor. The film’s zombies are fairly standard, save for a few eccentricities, such as the fact that they hibernate. But so little is developed about their behavior that it feels like a missed opportunity.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Cargo is a serviceable zombie film, it might even be better than most, but today that just isn’t good enough. The market is so saturated with zombie content, if a film or a TV show or a book isn’t absolutely spectacular or shocking in some way, it’s going to get drowned out by everything else that’s there. It’s difficult to tell whom, exactly, Cargo is for. It’s too pastiche for art house and it’s not hard core enough to satisfy gore hounds. Is there anyone clamoring for middle of the road zombie films? If so, Cargo is a decent one. Cargo is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival before being released on Netflix.