Directed by: Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Caren Pistorious & David Gulpilil
You may not know this, but Cargo is a remake. Netflix, in their quest to expand and consume the majority of the cultural landscape, picked a finalist of the Tropfest film festival – Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke’s short film of the same name, which swiftly went viral once uploaded to YouTube, and worked with the creators to make a feature length version. The draw will be, for many, the big name of Martin Freeman in the central role but to know this post-apocalyptic Australian drama came from such humble beginnings is heartening.
The issue with Cargo is that it doesn’t particularly deliver anything you haven’t seen done before, or you couldn’t find The Walking Dead or its spin-off series doing still on a weekly basis. Cargo, indeed, could probably fit fairly easily inside that shared universe, except with a Down Under setting. Freeman is Andy, the British husband of Kay and father to baby Josie, trying to survive in a world which has been ravaged by what looks like, basically, a zombie apocalypse. Undead monsters roam the wilderness as survivors attempt to eke out an existence. Andy & his family are fast running out of food, however, and once they move from the rivers to the mainland, their situation inevitably goes south – and fast.
Which is where it all goes very The Walking Dead by way of Cormac McCarthy (which you could suggest The Walking Dead is already a fairly pulpy version of anyway), as Freeman has to transport his ‘cargo’ (the little baby) across the Australian outback where he faces murderous weirdos, protective families, and comes into contact with an Aboriginal native tribe who are themselves seeking to survive in a world without hope or largely provisions. Howling & Ramke’s film therefore, again much like Robert Kirkman’s globally renowned zombie drama, isn’t really about the zombies at all – indeed Freeman was only attracted to the lead role once he realised the ‘genre’ aspects were minimal, with the story rather focusing on one man’s quest to survive to safeguard his daughter.
Rippling underneath Cargo, of course, is a commentary about the entitled exploitation by the white man at the expense of Aboriginal tribesmen, a similar issue often raised in American cinema when it comes to Native American populations. Australia has a similarly murderous, colonial story about native indigenous people having their land taken from them and being treated like savages but you don’t often see it portrayed in mainstream Western cinema.
It does give Cargo a level beyond the drama which principally sees Freeman forging an unlikely bond with an Aboriginal girl running away from her family, who seems to be on her own quest. The film even throws in Australian legend David Gulpilil, first known as the boy in Nicolas Roeg’s seminal 1971 movie Walkabout, to represent a tribe who may end up being Freeman’s salvation. The white man is definitely the enemy in Cargo; there is even a psychotic Australian killer akin to Wolf Creek’s Mick Taylor to provide some non-zombie menace.
Ultimately though, Cargo is just too stark and uninvolving to really strike much of a chord. Freeman is on good form, even if he feels a little awkward in a role which requires him to be a leading man in a scenario like this, but the script just doesn’t click. Howling & Ramke do convey the beauty of the echoing Australian expanse, but the film keeps you at arms length – it’s never pulpy enough to enjoy the genre trappings and nor is it emotional enough to make you really invested in Andy’s journey.
By the conclusion, you might just end up wondering why you didn’t watch one of the good seasons of The Walking Dead instead.
Cargo is now available on Netflix.