For as long as we’ve known each other, my friend Josh and I have endlessly talked about movies. Please enjoy these continued discussions of our random viewings:
Cargo (2017) – dir. Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke
BEN: We don’t just randomly watch obscure movies from decades past around here, sometimes Josh and I watch newer movies you may have actually heard of too. This week we watched one of the seemingly endless number of movies bought by Netflix to pad out their library of original content, Cargo, starring Martin Freeman as a father trying to find somewhere safe for his newborn daughter in a world devastated by a zombie outbreak.
Now when I saw the description for this movie I have to admit I was pretty pumped to see it. Martin Freeman in a post-apocalyptic Australian outback zombie movie? That checks so many boxes for me. Unfortunately, much like pretty much every other Netflix original movie I’ve seen thus far, this movie sounds better on paper than it does in execution. Cargo is based on a 2013 short film of the same name, which honestly worked better for me in its brevity than its feature length counterpart. Cargo (2017) is thematically not so much a Romero-style zombie movie than it is one made post-Walking Dead, where the undead are less of a threat than the mundane details of everyday survival and, of course, the threat of other uninfected humans. To be clear, this movie isn’t terrible. I quite enjoyed parts of it. My problem with the film is that it seems more interested in telling a flat, realistic story of survival than it does setting up and delivering on any big cinematic set pieces. The movie is constantly teasing something bigger but never quite delivering.
The movie starts with Andy (Martin Freeman) and his wife Kay (Susie Porter) drifting down a river in a houseboat with their newborn daughter, trying to avoid the infected that have already taken over Australia. Andy wants to stay on the boat where it’s safe and use the river to get to where he thinks the next safezone is. Kay thinks they’re going to die on the boat from lack of supplies long before they find this safezone that probably isn’t safe anyways, and insists that they should ditch the boat and look for a more permanent shelter. It turns out they were both right, because while Andy happens to find a sailboat filled with supplies to keep them going, he hides from his wife the danger hidden inside, leading her to go in herself and get bitten by a zombie. Kay insists Andy leave her and find somewhere safe for her daughter, but since in this universe it takes exactly 48 hours to go from infection to living dead status, Andy thinks he can save her by trying to find a hospital that might still be open before she goes full zombie.
Meanwhile, we occasionally cut from Andy’s story to Thoomi, an Aboriginal girl played by newcomer Simone Landers who is hiding her zombie father from her mother and the rest of her tribe who are on a mission to kill and burn all of the infected. Thoomi thinks the Clever Old Man can bring her father’s spirit back to his body and save him, but we don’t learn any of this until well over halfway through the movie when Andy finally meets Thoomi, which makes for some rather confusing cross-cutting early on in the film. Andy’s relationship with Thoomi is really my favorite part of the story, and I wish they had linked up earlier in the film to really take advantage of how well they play off of each other.
Instead we have to first muddle through the more conventional zombie movie storyline of Andy linking up with another survivor, Vic (Anthony Hayes) who seems like a good guy at first, but ends up being the kind of horrible person zombie apocalypses so often end up creating. I think Vic was meant to be some rather predictable metaphor about white Australians exploiting natural resources and mistreating indigenous people, but the whole thing adds nothing new to the cliché and comes off rather boring and trite.
Part of the problem is that this movie looks like it has the exact same budget as the 2013 short film it’s based on, as if all the extra financing they got to make the feature length film was spent on locking down Martin Freeman’s retainer. Outside of what we’re told by the characters, there’s very little production design put into creating a post-apocalyptic world. Everything is insinuation. Is this a world ravaged by zombies, or just another slow day in the outback? Considering the wealth of post-apocalyptic imagery to come out of Australia that the filmmakers had to draw upon, you’d think they’d have something more interesting to show you. Instead we get lots of shots of untouched Australian outback with the occasional burnt zombie to let you know this isn’t the normal outback. Yawn.
Anyway, what did you think of Cargo, Josh? Was the human drama enough to hold your attention, or, like me, were you disappointed in how flat this movie was filmed?
JOSH: I’d say I pretty much agree with your assessment in the broad strokes. It is definitely a, ahem, modestly scaled, imagination starved Aussie zombie flick that goes for human drama over… well, you name it: action, suspense, actual scares, etc. etc. This is a film that places its entire bet on getting you to a) care about the travails of Andy, Thoomi, and baby, and b) because of that, not care that this is practically an anti-zombie movie, considering how obligatory the actual zombie movie elements are.
For a while I didn’t think the film’s bet was going to work for me at all, mostly because Andy and Kay (albeit Kay to a lesser degree, her one fatal error aside) are so fucking stupid in the first half hour of this thing. I know, I know, it’s easy to watch a survival drama and armchair quarterback people’s decisions, but these people, Ben. My God, these people. Their stupidity, combined with the co-directors’ inability not to telegraph the patently obvious from a thousand yards away (wait, do we think there might be a zombie hidden below deck in this mysteriously wrecked yacht? Do we – wait, do we think that might happen?) is a pretty infuriating combination, and I therefore spent the first half hour of the film groaning at these dummy’s unfortunate life choices and praying for death – either for them or my WiFi signal, so I could spare myself the remaining hour.
But funny enough, the rest actually did pretty much work for me, on its own limited terms. Once Kay has zombied out, bitten Andy, and started his own 48 hour countdown to Zombietown, the film shifts into a different mode, dominated by a kind of pervasive, escalating sadness and desperation that I found reasonably compelling.
Andy is a confident man at the start of the film, but it’s the confidence of a man who is terrified of failing. He and his family have survived this long on a houseboat, and Andy is just pleased as punch about that – never mind that it’s plainly the houseboat that has done all the heavy lifting there. When left to his own devices, Andy’s choices are terrible – first he neglects to tell his wife about the possible danger on the yacht, resulting in her eventual infection and death; then he ignores her pleas to leave her behind, leading to his infection and eventual death. He is prepared to leave his daughter in the hands of a racist monster because, hey, at least she’ll survive longer than he, Andy, does. At each turn, these choices are mostly about preserving an image of himself – as a competent man, husband, father. And of course what he learns via his experiences is how to actually be those things.
So I’m not going to mount some super strong defense of the movie, because I absolutely hear you on what a let down it is as a genre exercise. But I am a sucker for movies about men brought to heel by their own hubris, and I did like the way the film tore Andy’s blinders off step by step, dangling victories before him only to snatch them away.
And I liked his relationship with Thoomi a lot. She is as imprisoned by her belief in her own failure as Andy is imprisoned by his fear of failure. She believes her father is a zombie because of her, that the Clever Old Man can save him, and that she is responsible for making that happen. She isn’t, of course, and Andy is able to tell her that – clearly and without hesitation, which is ironic considering his own blinkered perspective.
But I liked how the film handled Andy’s evolving perspective, too. He goes from the guy who is about to kill himself at Vic’s compound, to the guy who pleads with the father of another family not to go through with a murder-suicide. He goes from the guy who views his responsibilities narrowly through his own sense of self worth, to a guy who literally lets Thoomi ride him like a zombie pony to make sure she gets the rest of the way to her family, thus ensuring her own survival, and that of his daughter. I liked the way the film does that, reducing the number of available outcomes down steadily, until there’s really only one or two. The way Andy is forced to make those choices, step by step, is pretty solid, and Freeman does a good job of selling each step in the journey. He’s a fine actor and this is another good turn from him. It’s not a full meal, but it ain’t the thinnest gruel either.
As for the visuals, I do agree that the movie is pretty flat on that front, though there is one striking set of images that I want to point out. Toward the end there are a series of haunting, smoke filled shots as Thoomi’s family set brush fires and massacres zombies as they wander through the smoky terrain. It’s little more than a handful of shots, often framed off center so you barely catch the action out of the corner of your eye, but it’s still very evocative and cool. In fact, it points to a much more interesting movie altogether.
And this is what’s ultimately so frustrating about Cargo. Indie film budgets are what they are. International financing is what it is. I haven’t seen the short film this is based on, but I understand the impulse to make a low budget Aussie zombie movie that’s actually a sensitive character study about Martin Freeman learning to become a good man. You can, and they did, sell that movie. But for God’s sake, why make that movie when you could make a movie about a group of badass Aborigine’s banding together to fight off the zombie apocalypse? It’s right there, sitting on the screen, a story waiting to be told, and one that we haven’t seen, in one iteration or another, a million times before. And they blew it.
Now maybe it’s good that they didn’t, because that’s an approach that could easily have run right off the rails, especially now when concerns over appropriation and racial insensitivity are much more prominent in the cultural conversation. But still, I would rather have seen them – or someone! – try.
BEN: After reading your response and thinking back on the movie I would like to adjust my opinion, slightly. I think Cargo probably worked a lot better on paper, where your imagination could help to fill in a lot of the gaps in the storytelling. The core idea is really strong and the screenplay could be converted into a really great novella. It’s the film’s direction that really kills the vibe for me. This movie really needed to be turned up to eleven, through maybe some more shots of forced perspective or ramped up editing during the action sequences. The word that keeps coming to mind every time I think of this movie is “flat”. There seems to be no real point of view, no fresh take on the subject. Everything is shot rather matter of factly. A little extra personality or perspective from the directors would have gone a long way towards pushing me to the edge of the seat, instead of towards my phone. I was constantly trying to guess what the filmmakers were trying to say, and it wasn’t until the movie was nearly over that I was able to really figure that out.
It doesn’t help that they throw a lot of rather ambiguous imagery in there for you to try and muddle through on your own. The biggest question mark for me was the zombies with their heads buried in the dirt. I may have missed something, but I don’t think the film ever explained why there were all of these zombies with their heads buried in the sand. Did someone put them in there that way? Logically that would make sense, except Andy frequently has moments where he starts to dig a hole for himself, only to stop when something happens to help him move the plot forward. But if people are doing this to themselves, how, exactly? Try to bury your own head and see how well that works out for you. And I doubt the zombies are covering up their own heads, unless that’s the final stage of infection (which doesn’t explain why there are so many zombies just walking around). So what exactly is going on here?
At first I was thinking this was some kind of way to preserve your body without infecting anyone else until the government made a cure for the infection, but that doesn’t quite make sense either. Finally the only theory I could come up with was the dumbest theory, that it was a metaphor for people giving up and literally putting their heads in the sand to avoid dealing with their problems. As a metaphor that kinda makes sense, but as a real thing that actually happens in a movie it’s just so DUMB. The whole time I’m thinking this is so obvious that it can’t be the right answer, because it just…can’t. Secretly I’m hoping that burying your head in the sand is some Aboriginal tradition I’m not aware of that would make the image work so much better than what I came up with. I also agree with you that this movie would be so much better if they spent more time on the Aboriginal side of the story. That would be something I haven’t seen before.
The other main problem I have with the movie is that it sets up things that you think are going to have a big payoff, but don’t, which in turn undermines the impact of the plot elements that actually do have a payoff. Thoomi keeps going on and on about how the Clever Old Man can bring the infected back from the dead by guiding their souls back to their bodies. Meanwhile, the movie makes a very big deal about how you have exactly 48 hours from infection until you go full zombie. Somehow, amongst all the chaos of a global zombie apocalypse, FitBit apparently had time to make a device that counts down the 48 hours for you. The whole movie is a race against the clock for Andy to find somewhere safe for his daughter before he turns around and eats her. We even see the Clever Old Man in a cage at one point of the movie, but he’s gone by the time Andy and Thoomi come around to save him. But wait! There’s the Clever Old Man at the end of the movie! He’s about to kill Andy when Thoomi stops him from doing so. Thoomi sprays Kay’s perfume and Andy seems to react to it, as if there’s still some of him left inside. We haven’t seen his FitBit in a while, so maybe he still has a few minutes of humanity left before going full zombie? Maybe the Clever Old Man does actually have some old Aboriginal trick to save the infected? (SPOILER ALERT: He doesn’t.)
I was so mad that the movie had left out all of these little breadcrumbs for me to follow, only to not push them to their logical conclusion, that it rather undercut the actual ending of the movie, which actually wasn’t all that bad. It just wasn’t what I thought they were setting up, which is at least partially why this movie left such a bad taste in my mouth. Martin Freeman, god bless him, has to hold a lot of the movie together on his shoulders, because the bland filmmaking doesn’t do us any favors by indicating or hinting at where the movie is going.
Cargo actually reminded me a lot of another no-budget zombie movie I saw recently, The Battery (2012). That’s a movie about two guys who were teammates on a minor league baseball team before the zombie apocalypse started (pitcher and catcher). The central tension in the film comes from the fact that the guys weren’t exactly friends before everything started, just teammates, but now they have to depend on each other for their survival. They fight and bicker, they don’t even really seem to like each other, but they do need each other, and that clear narrative drive pushes the story forward without having a budget big enough to do much more than slap zombie makeup on a couple extras. There was a clear vision pushing a narrative forward that got me invested in that story where Cargo didn’t, despite it having an even smaller budget than Cargo.
But what did you think of the ending, Josh? Did it end the way you thought it would, or were you thrown off by all the conflicting story elements like I was? And did you ever figure out what the deal was with the buried head zombies?
JOSH: I think the only real lead we’re given about the head-burying thing comes when Andy and Thoomi are going through the tunnel. They find a group of zombies lined up with their heads against the wall. Thoomi says that they’re hibernating and need the dark. I assume that the zombies bury their heads in the sand when they don’t have a nice dark tunnel to hide in. As for why they need to hibernate, or what happens after they’re done hibernating… well, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe it has to do with the apparent degradation of their eye tissue – in the end-stage of the infection, the pre-zombies’ eyes get pretty funky, and after they die they seem to excrete some really nasty pus looking stuff from their eyes. I would probably want to bury my head for a while after that too, you know?
The matter of how a movie raises expectations, and how it pays off those expectations, is a good one to get into, though. This movie definitely does raise a lot of questions, directly and indirectly. It answers very few of them, and I think it’s totally fair to be frustrated by that lack of explanation. It didn’t throw me in this case, mostly because I think I latched on to what the filmmakers were going for early enough that the questions and mysteries seemed like exactly the red herrings they were. We were never going to get clear rules on what the zombies were, because our point of view was too limited – Thoomi’s perception of the plague is colored by her religious beliefs; Andy was on a house boat for too long and just doesn’t seem to have the context. Or maybe he’s just pretending not to for the sake of his own sanity.
But the movie muddies that significantly at times – for example, the filmmakers clearly establish that the plague has been going on long enough for the government to have issued kits for how to deal with infected individuals, including pointy metal rods in case you need to kill someone (including yourself) before turning. So the information does exist, and Andy should actually know it, but he doesn’t seem to, not really, and it’s never communicated to the audience. For me, it doesn’t really need to be – it’s not necessarily the type of conversation that Andy would have with any of the people that he comes across. But it’s a detail that both enhances and undermines the world that the filmmakers created.
The role of the Clever Old Man and his potential power to return souls to their bodies, well… That struck me as pretty fanciful stuff that the movie was never going to pay off. That’s just a child’s superstition, or so it seemed to me.
But, filmmakers have to be aware of what issues they’re raising, and the expectation of some kind of reasonable payoff that inevitably files. You can do what they did here, and pretty much give you nothing, but they risk leaving the viewer frustrated and unsatisfied, especially when what’s offered up as the alternative is not exactly mind-blowing stuff.
I’ve been trying to think of what Cargo reminded me of, and the closest film I came up with was Children of Men, which also dangles some similarly big questions, at least at first, but then narrows its scope down to be a simple matter of survival: will Clive Owen deliver the pregnant girl to the ship? Ultimately, in both films survival is the single goal. Figuring out the hows and whys of something have to be left for later. But Children of Men is much smarter about managing our understanding of what exactly the film is, and how it should be viewed, with filmmakers who are much more aware of what they’re doing, and much more capable of offering a wholly satisfying experience, even in the absence of hard answers on the film’s big, abstract questions. And that’s ultimately where I think we can leave off with Cargo: it’s a movie that wants to be About Something, but in the end it’s just a zombie flick with its head stuck in the sand, with all us viewers left to wonder why.
I hope you enjoyed reading about a newer movie, because next week we go back to the 80’s (heck, the 1880s, even!) to watch a film that’s actually really good: Silverado (1985) – dir. Lawrence Kasdan, the best semi-recent western that you probably haven’t seen.