Dir. Ivan Engler (2010, Switzerland, 105 mins.)
I find it impossible to briefly express how impressed and moved I am by Ivan Engler’s debut feature Cargo. Woven from threads similar to Alien, Moon, and the Soviet masterpiece Solaris, Cargo is a profound achievement that successfully merges story with spectacle, something that eludes most science fiction filmmaking.
Set in a dystopic future where Earth has become decrepit and humanity lives aboard vast space stations, Cargo explores themes of isolation and our relationship with technology. We follow Dr. Laura Portmann aboard the cargo ship Kassandra, where she hopes to make enough money from the eight year, round voyage to pay for a place on the world Rhea, humanity’s only inhabited planet and the home of her beloved sister. The crew spend most of the voyage asleep, with only one member awake per eight and a half month shift. Beautiful camera work – usually slow, meditative, and deliberate – conveys an existential sense of isolation. This sense is underscored by the character’s interaction with technology, which is more frequent than their interaction with other characters. Even when Laura interacts with another person, she usually must do so by using technology as a medium: for instance she must use a video transmitter to speak with her sister. This cold hierarchy begins to fracture when Laura comes to believe that someone else is aboard the ship and awakens the rest of the crew.
Cargo posits that human beings, consistently isolated from fellow humans by technological barriers, become unable to access other people’s value, and, by extension, their own value. Our introduction to the crew of the Kassandra is almost devoid of words, of interaction. Personalities do not emerge until much later, after outside forces have upset the natural order of the mission. The action of people arguing, working cooperatively, and even touching each other is jarring because, until this point, the characters do not interact in any meaningful way. Engler successfully defamiliarizes us with human interaction, by use of story and cinematography, such that when it is reintroduced, humanity is made new to us and we rediscover its value. As Viktor Shklovsky would put it, Engler has successfully made a stone stoney. The characters onscreen mirror this journey made by the audience. They must attempt to discover their humanity – or choose to ignore it. Cargo is about people.
Incidentally, Cassandra is also a Trojan princess, who is given the gift of prophecy and a curse that no one can ever believe her. Cargo is not a prophecy for the future. Like any worthwhile science fiction, it is a prophecy for our time, and one well-worth watching.
– Dave Robson