Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
It’s difficult to find funding, distribution, or even an audience for short films these days. Anyone can shoot a short and put it up online, and the competition from amateurs and free content is brisk enough to make any professional think twice about making a short for any reason except inspiration or fun. But for first-time filmmakers proving their talents, a well-received short film can open some doors and make funding for a feature easier to find. It worked for Neill Blomkamp, whose debut District 9 started as a short called Alive In Joburg. It worked for Damien Chazelle, who initially made Whiplash as a short proof-of-concept film, complete with J.K. Simmons playing the role that would win him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the feature-length version of the story. More recently, it worked for the directors of Prospect, which started out as a short film and recently became a terrific full-length that’s still touring festivals.
But the downside to turning a well-received short into a feature is that if the short has enough pass-around value to go viral online, viewers who eventually see the feature-length version may compare the two unfavorably. That’s a problem for Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s new Netflix movie Cargo, a zombie feature that expands on their hit 2013 short of the same name. The short version is memorable, effective, and tremendously efficient, telling an emotional little horror story in just over seven minutes, credits included. The 105-minute feature version eventually arrives at a similar conclusion, but the extra material doesn’t necessarily add that much to the story. For people who’ve seen the short, the long version can feel like it’s just marking time, stretching out the narrative until it’s time for the familiar punch. (So be warned, the short is linked above, but watching it will basically spoil the full-length movie.)
What’s the genre?
Zombie survival horror. The film has a few new twists on the genre — among other things, it doesn’t feel particularly political, or like a commentary on humanity. Inevitably, it has a character who’s more of a monster than the zombies are, but that isn’t specifically the point of the story.
What’s it about?
Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) are a couple navigating a zombie outbreak in the Australian interior. As the film opens, they’ve clearly been through some trauma, but they’ve commandeered a houseboat where they’re keeping their infant daughter Rosie safe. They don’t agree about where to go next — Andy wants to stick to the river and head for a military base, Kay points out that they’re out of supplies and need to head overland to restock — but everything about their relationship suggests quiet devotion and dedication. Then a series of incidents leaves Andy traveling alone overland with Rosie strapped to his back, trying to dodge infected attackers and find a safe haven in spite of a ticking clock.
Meanwhile, a young Aboriginal woman named Thoomi (Simone Landers) is in the opposite position, trying to protect her infected father, who she can mostly control by feeding him wildlife, keeping him gagged, and keeping a close watch on him. But her community is actively hunting and eliminating the zombies, so she’s isolated herself from them In the early going of Cargo, the story periodically finds her for short blinks, tracking what she’s up to. Then she and Andy start crossing each other’s paths, and changing each other’s story.
What’s it really about?
Human connection. In this story, they’re mostly of the familial kind, and mostly about the responsibility spouses owe each other, or children and parents owe each other. But somewhat inevitably for a zombie story, Cargo becomes a movie about found family, and how it can be poisonous or crucial, depending on the people involved and their willingness to harm or help each other to further their own goals.
Is it good?
At this point, there have been so many zombie stories that one of the primary markers of quality in any new canon entry is whether it has anything new to say, or finds any new spins on the genre. Ramke, who scripted both the short and the feature, has a few fresh ideas. For one, she doesn’t give her zombies a name — Andy and Kay don’t even refer to the walking-dead issue, they just talk practical strategies, which feels like something parents might do out of instinct, and also feels a lot more natural than trading exposition. For another, Ramke’s zombies seek dark places to hibernate, which often includes literally burying their heads in the dirt to shut out the light. For a third, the stages of this particular outbreak include producing an immense amount of resinous, amber-colored goop from the eyes and mouth, which saves a lot of rotting-face makeup effects, while still producing a startling and distinctive look.
But these are largely cosmetic effects. (In the case of the face-goop, literally so.) And a great deal of Cargo is extremely familiar — dodging the shambling undead, dealing with bites and the progression of the disease, watching other people with a wary mixture of need and distrust. A more significant difference is how much time Cargo spends with people who are calmly contemplating their own suicide, and sometimes carrying it out. In Ramke’s world, the Australian government is still active enough to bombard the outback with infection kits, which include wrist restraints, a bite guard, a map of known infected areas, a simple watch with a 48-hour countdown (from first bite to full-blown monsterism)… and a simple, effective suicide device. Given how many zombie stories are basically elaborate wish-fulfillment video games, about blowing away targets, hoarding supplies, and finding a safe spot, Cargo’s quiet acknowledgement that suicide might be a kind option for the infected feels revelatory and even dangerous.
And the film gets plenty of pathos out of Andy’s relationship with Rosie, a generally sweet and tractable kid who’s too young to understand any of what’s going on, but not too young to respond warmly to displays of affection. (Four different babies played Rosie, so it’s impossible for a casual viewer to know which one’s in a given scene, but Ramke and Howling capture a couple of moments between Andy and Rosie that are downright magical, all the more so for knowing they’re spontaneous and undirected. Much as John Krasinski’s recent horror hit A Quiet Place draws on the profound vulnerability of a newborn in a monster-filled world, Cargo makes it constantly clear that Rosie’s life hangs on Andy’s choices, in a situation where those choices are vanishingly few.
Freeman isn’t the most emotionally expressive actor out there. He has a certain range, and projects from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to The Office to Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy to Black Panther have made use of his notable talent for playing brittle, fussy, endlessly put-upon characters. But while he’s solid at expressing shock and concern, he tends to bring across most other emotions with a tight, distant smile or mild frown that expresses a layer of resignation above everything else he might be feeling. That approach mostly actually works well here, as he plays a man who’s tamped down all his emotional responses as he tries to project confidence and cheeriness for his family.
But occasionally, it doesn’t seem like enough. Cargo’s biggest flaw is that it feels too even-keeled and mild to give viewers the proper sense of alarm or desperation. And to some degree, that feels like an artifact of it coming out of a short film that covered the most necessary bases of the story. The directors spend long stretches of Cargo on characters tramping around the outback, or surveying their surroundings, or otherwise standing still. Andy meets characters who don’t add much to the story, or spends too much time engaged with crucial characters who don’t express much nuance. The pacing is meant to be quiet and thoughtful, but that means it sometimes drags. It’s easy to feel that the directors are going for a sort of elegiac Australian end-of-the-world story like On The Beach, or a poetic outback story like Walkabout, but the tone doesn’t provide the sense of urgency the story is meant to have.
And Thoomi and her side story do add to the narrative, but not everything they add is positive. She seems to live in a parallel world that has nothing to do with Andy’s understanding of reality, and the mild sense of magical realism her people bring to the story sometimes feels a bit suspect, like yet another case of treating native tribes as mystics and noble savages. The presence of 40-year Australian film stalwart David Gulpilil as the “clever man” of Thoomi’s tribe is a grounding element, but he’s not really allowed to be a character, so much as he is a symbol. Thoomi and Andy become important to each other, but neither really understands or connects with the other in any but the shallowest ways, and the way she feels like a plot device more than an integral part of the story is a significant flaw. That’s the problem with turning a strong short into an entire feature — not every element is going to seem necessary to the new version, since it wasn’t necessary for the old one. Possibly everyone is better off just picking one version or the other to watch, and sticking with that.
What should it be rated?
There’s certainly blood and gore, but it’s fairly brief and toned-down for a zombie movie. PG-13 at worst.
How can I actually watch it?
Cargo will launch on Netflix on May 18th in America.