Cargo (dir. Ivan Engler): too much cargo taken on board in the plot and characters wreck a visually fine film

Ivan Engler, “Cargo” (2009)

Debut full-length directorial feature for Ivan Engler, “Cargo” is a bloodless effort set in the distant future when the Earth has become uninhabitable due to global ecological collapse and mysterious plagues. Everyone still surviving lives on space stations around the planet. A lucky few are selected in a lottery to go to other planets terra-formed for human habitation and one of these people is Arianne Portmann who goes with her family to the planet Rhea. Her sister Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) needs to save up money to go to Rhea herself so she takes a job as ship doctor on an old cargo transporter going to distant space station #42. The trip there and back to Earth will take 8 years, much of it spent in cryo-sleep.

The main crew consists of five members, each of whom together with Portmann, will take turns monitoring conditions onboard for about 8 months while the others are in cryo-sleep. Due to ecoterrorism on the space stations led by a group called the Machine Strikers, the transporter must take on a space marshal called Decker (Martin Rapold). Initially the trip to #42 is uneventful but when it’s Portmann’s turn to wake up and keep watch, strange things that go bump in deep space start occur in the ship’s holding bay and she has to wake up the captain (Pierre Semmler) who investigates the odd incidents with her. The captain mysteriously falls to his death while investigating so Portmann must do an autopsy to determine the immediate causes. She finds his artificial eye and on seeing its last recorded images, discovers through them the true nature of the materials being transported to #42; they are not construction materials as she and the rest of the crew were told, they are organic. After further detective work by herself and Decker, who has long been suspicious of the nature of the cargo, the materials turn out to be humans in deep cryo-sleep.

So begins a mystery thriller that’s part noir, part “Alien” movie series and part “The Matrix” at least; there may be other science fiction / space exploration films referenced here as well. The visual scenes are stunning, especially those of the ship sailing into a black void and those in which Portmann and Decker venture out into space to find her sister’s cryo-sleep pod so that Portmann can meet her and make a broadcast back to the space stations orbiting Earth. Apart from breath-taking scenes of highly detailed space vehicles and stations, Decker and Portmann travelling from the main part of the transporter to find the container that holds Arianne’s pod, and interior scenes of the transporter that emphasise its moody, sinister labyrinthine passages – as if viewers hadn’t already seen similar passages in the ships featured in the “Alien” series of movies – the acting tends to be so low-key and expressionless as to suggest that while in cryo-sleep, the nutritive glop that surrounds sleeping humans drains them of their red blood cells. Actors rarely raise their voices or  look even mildly upset, even in scenes where they have to fight or bid a tearful farewell to someone about to commit suicide. A stab at a romance between Decker and Portmann is laughably unconvincing; the scene in which they embrace and start throwing off their clothes goes upside-down slowly and soundlessly and just when they’re about to have fun, a sliding metal door glides down to hide them in the nick of time to preserve their privacy from us voyeurs. Whatever happened to good healthy clean Germanic revelry in bare-skin nature?

The plot suffers as well from familiar sci-fi cliche: viewers will be glad to know a human or two get blown into the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch revolving around a distant star not in the movie. At one point in the film I wondered if the plot was borrowing heavily from an old Doctor Who adventure “The Ark in Space” in which humans kept in deep sleep were being attacked by an alien insect species who used the humans as incubators for its larvae. After all, Portmann does find a young girl in one of the cryo-sleep pods who has something unusual inserted into her spine. Could it be a larva? – fortunately it’s something inorganic and harmless. At least if there was a mysterious plague or a few nasty cockroaches grown to giant size in those containers, there would be plenty of suspense and action as Decker and Portmann would have to choose between blowing up the ship and its cargo (and explaining matters 57 years later to an irate Board of Directors who have to write the multi-billion euro assets off) and whooshing the giant macrophages or silicon-shielded arthropods out through the airlocks in the absence of highly toxic super-powered pesticides and off to … well, you know where. Instead the suspense wavers from one level of low-key uncertainty to another as characters change the ship’s co-ordinates to travel to Rhea instead of #42.

It’s a pity that the plot is a pastiche of older, better sci-fi movie and TV show scenarios and the characters themselves are one-dimensional versions of the characters in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” movie (and the young girl found in cryo-sleep is a reference to Newt of “Aliens”) as the film’s themes of alienation, isolation, the need to connect with others and corporate exploitation and manipulation of people’s dreams and hopes are powerful and relevant to us all. Portmann discovers the true nature of Rhea which destroys her dream of ever being reunited with Arianne and her children. Anyone else would be completely devastated and would want to rage at the cynical managers and spin doctors who have duped people like Arianne and treated them as garbage for profit. Portmann simply soldiers on with barely a tear running down her face. As for Decker, the other significant character who should have a complex personality and conflicting motives, there again is little fleshing-out of the security guard who’s really an ecoterrorist in disguise; why he falls in love with Portmann and sacrifices himself for her is a puzzle.

Can’t imagine that Hollywood would want to remake this film but if its film studios are prepared to stoop this low, they’ll have their hands full reworking the script to something much more original and to include a proper sewage disposal treatment plant somewhere in space every time something gets flushed out the airlocks.