Cargo, based on the award-winning short film of the same name, has a couple new zombie apocalypse ideas, to be certain, but they're not enough to make it legendary, or even worth an afternoon. In fact, Cargo was perfect in its original, short form. Stretching it out over 105 minutes makes the payoff greater, but the journey is an arduous, questionable one.
Filmmakers like Neill Blomkamp, Damien Chazelle, and Taika Waititi broke out with short films, and followed them with adapted features that sprung their careers. Directors Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling are trying to do the same with Cargo, and they show real potential. Their vision of future Australia is a barren hellscape where the sun roasts what's left of the living. Their style is kinetic and thoughtful, pausing at the right moments while speeding the action up when needed. It's their storytelling that's lacking.
Andy (Martin Freeman), his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and their infant daughter, Rosie, are survivors whose hope turns to dust when a salvage mission goes awry. Left alone with Rosie and 48 hours before he turns into a monster himself, Andy embarks on a savage mission to get his daughter to safety in the scariest environment imaginable.
Cargo's premise is white knuckle stuff, but the filmmakers make a number of curious decisions that zap the film of danger: They're stingy with the undead threat, and they overload us with political subtext.
The zombies in Cargo are ferocious and strange. Once a human is bitten, he or she has 48 hours until zombie time, during which they're subject to seizures, absence of mind, and general ickiness. You know you're about to turn when a sick mucous forms over your eyes and mouth. The dead, called "diggers" by the locals, also do something quite unique: They stick their heads in the sand like camels to avoid the blistering sun. Zombies in Cargo don't like the light.
However, Cargo goes the late season Walking Dead route, making the zombies a secondary threat. After Andy is forced to leave his wife behind, he runs into a man who seems like a survivor, but Andy soon learns he's a sadist and thief who thinks things will go back the way they were. The human threat is understandable, but we came here for zombies.
Along Andy's journey, he (and we) are constantly reminded humans probably deserve this apocalyptic reckoning. Graffiti warns against fracking. A hospital worker tells Andy how the government cut their funding years back. And a wise aboriginal, Daku (David Gulpilil), warns, "They're poisoning this land you know. This country's changing. It's sick. We all get sick. You get sick too." The themes are so overt they take you right out of the movie and back into the real world. That's not a good thing.
Cargo is far from the first zombie movie to include societal themes. Most genre flicks do it to explain how the world got taken over by the dead to begin with. However, there are artful ways to do it, as opposed to bludgeoning us over the head. George Romero showed us discarded money caught in the wind in Day of the Dead. There's something to be said for subtlety... and for gory zombie violence.