El Camino: a film of sci-fi / horror alienation and existentialism

Fernando Campos and Jaime Jasso, “El Camino” (2020)

A well made and visually gorgeous film, “El Camino” happens to be the culmination of five years of work. In its characters and plot, the film is inspired and influenced by Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, the film that started an entire franchise of sci-fi horror movies and defined Sigourney Weaver’s entire film-acting career. Weary cargo spaceship pilot Rojo (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), beset by problems unknown (though audiences can guess: owing a debt to a criminal space gang perhaps, needing money) and on the way home from previous arduous missions, is offered one more dodgy deal that will clear some of his obligations and allow him to go home with his daughter Robin (Yam Acevedo). He accepts the job and collects a mysterious cargo which is guarded by an armed robot. During the trip Rojo feels unwell and the ship lurches suddenly. Robin guesses that the strange cargo may be affecting Dad’s health in some way and goes down to the hold where the cargo is located to investigate …

The work put into the film’s set designs, the backgrounds and the various special effects is stunning. The vast expanses of space are emphasised, and with them the isolation, loneliness and exhaustion of space cargo operators as they deliver shipments of sometimes dangerous cargoes throughout the length and breadth of the cosmos. One can imagine that pilots compete for shipment contracts that pay peanuts yet demand a great deal physically and psychologically from pilots. No wonder Rojo looks so drained and seems so unwell!

The acting is minimal almost to the point of it being underwhelming but Rojo’s distress and horror when he discovers something dreadful in the cargo hold becomes all the more poignant. He faces losing the one thing he has sacrificed so much for, the daughter who is his one reason for living. He faces having to go home alone with all the pain of being alone and cut off totally from other human beings.

While the plot and the characters seem small compared to the film’s visual design – the characters are a bit one-dimensional without much backstory that would explain why they do the things they do; and viewers can predict that once Rojo accepts the cargo and tells his daughter not to go near it, she will disobey him and suffer the consequences – they do illustrate the film’s themes of the possible hazards of space travel and how their intersection with the demands of an industry (and the ideological paradigms that have shaped that industry and the corporations in it) impact on humans and their families and communities. One has a sense of Rojo and his daughter Robin being pawns of powerful unseen corporate and individual players in the interstellar shipment industry.

The film plays like a pitch to a possible feature film in which further consequences of Rojo’s decision to accept one last job play out on innocent others in Earth’s space colonies.