For years now, zombie-related stories have been the rage on screens big and small. Whether telling the on-going story of a group of survivors (AMC’s The Walking Dead) or a one-shot of a father protecting his daughter (Train to Busan), these stories always focus on how their central characters seek to survive the zombie horde rather than using the pack as a means of looking inward to our own faults or abused responsibilities – an approach often preferred by horror master George A. Romero. Netflix’s latest original feature Cargo, written by Yolanda Ramke and co-directed by Ben Howling, falls in the path of the latter, opting for a story that largely shuns zombies and places humankind’s humanity in the crosshairs.
Several weeks into countrywide infection that turns the living into meat-craving, meandering, soulless creatures, resourceful couple Andy and Kay (Martin Freeman and Susie Porter) survive the pandemic by living on a houseboat with their toddler daughter Rosie (Lily Ann and Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins). Though not aquatic by nature, Andy and Kay plan to use the river to skirt the largely infected lands of Australia, gathering food and supplies wherever they can find them, as they head toward a military base rumored to offer protection. However, when a zombie attack results in Kay’s death and Andy’s infection, Andy sets out on foot to find a guardian for his child before he turns into the creatures he fought so hard to protect his family from.
For those not in the know, Cargo originated as a short film in 2013 which Ramke and Howling expand upon in this feature. Many of the original elements remain the same, as well as much of the emotional punch – largely thanks to Freeman’s fantastic, and often subtle, physical work – though the story of the central story is expanded by including a parallel story involving an indigenous tribe, as well as new characters to enhance the thematic exploration of the various responses humanity has in its worst hours. In fact, it’s made very clear by the first image we see – that of a young indigenous girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers) running across the Australian plains – that the central character of the short story is no longer the focus of the expanded tale. It’s an interesting choice, one of several throughout Cargo, which establishes quickly how Cargo isn’t the stereotypical zombie tale. It’s not about how Andy perseveres against the infection, rather, it’s about Thoomi’s relationship to the infected and how it can help Andy in his time of dire need. Narratively, it’s an intriguing choice that immediately sets the film apart from others within the genre.
Additionally, Ramke and Howling make a calculated choice to keep the story as insular as possible. Rather than unloading heapfuls of exposition on the audience, information is given piecemeal as things happen. One example is how the audience learns about the government’s contamination kit only when Andy starts going through it after Kay’s infection. Though the zombies and their behaviors are generally kept mysterious, we’re able to deduce that the conversion process is more caterpillar-to-butterfly than sudden change as the body slowly undergoes an internal transformation that induces seizures before an orange substance excretes from the host to create a husk-like shell covering the eyes and mouth. This provides the audience a solid timeline to follow, upping our empathy with Andy’s plight since we’re as aware as he is of how close he is to a full transformation. Similarly, through non-exposition dialogue, a suggestion is made that the contamination is due to fracking, thereby making the resulting plague nature’s way of preventing its destruction. Though it’s never outright stated as the cause, this undercurrent theme creates a lovely symmetry with Andy’s search for a new caretaker to carry on after he succumbs.
All that said, there’s frequently too much that detracts from Cargo to make it wholly laudable. Though the short needed more story in order to become a feature film, much of what makes the short version of Cargo work is its simplicity. It’s not that the feature is overly complicated, so much as it frequently feels meandering and bloated as it fills its runtime. Some of this may be due to shifting the focus from Andy to Thoomi, whose own familial drama makes her both Andy’s central cause of anger and his grateful savior. Landers delivers a solid performance as this conflicted character, yet her story is presented as the central story when it’s Andy the audience bonds with. This clash of the narrative through lines makes engaging the story more difficult and drains the film of much of its emotional wallop as it jumps back and forth between the two stories until their inevitable convergence. Another frustrating aspect of Cargo is the inconsistency in the timeline of infection. Andy seems to turn much slower than his wife, even though the path he traverses is far longer and on foot. Perhaps this is due to the placement of each infecting injury, yet it’s hard to think that the speed of her metamorphosis versus his serves as dramatic effect rather than the narrative.
Overall, Cargo is a fine addition to the vast interpretations of the zombie subgenre of horror. Where it succeeds, it does so with aplomb. The world feels real, the characters sympathetic, and the danger imminent. Audiences won’t find themselves having wasted their time due to the great performances from the entire cast, as well as the rather interesting questions that Cargo suggests. However, expanding the story of the original short trades the emotional power for seemingly nothing more than more screen time. Unfortunately, in this case, more does not equate to better as Cargo suffers under the weight of its length.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.