Netflix's 'Cargo' review: A 'zombie tearjerker' set in a post-apocalyptic paradise stands out in a crowd of undead

A review of Netflix's 'Cargo,' a post-apocalyptic thriller starring Martin Freeman which is set to release on May 18.


                            Netflix's 'Cargo' review: A 'zombie tearjerker' set in a post-apocalyptic paradise stands out in a crowd of undead

'Cargo' is the first foray of pair Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling into the direction of a feature-length film and will make history on May 18 when it becomes the first-ever Australian Netflix Original movie. It is a culmination of a journey that has been five years in the making - with the pair initially having conceived and co-directed a short, viral version of the film in 2013 - and has been dubbed a 'zombie tearjerker.' 

Boasting a cast of names such as Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter, and Caren Pistorius, the film is not short of star power and will release under the aegis of Umbrella Entertainment, Addictive Pictures, Causeway Films, and Head Gear Films. Meaww had the opportunity to view a screening, and here are our thoughts on a film that attempts to stray from the norm of cookie-cutter mold zombie apocalypse films.

'Cargo' is set in the gorgeous outbacks of Australia (Source: Netflix)
'Cargo' is set in the gorgeous outbacks of Australia (Source: Netflix)

The setting of the film is a post-pandemic Australia which has been ravaged by a virus that turns victims into mindless, lethargic, flesh-seeking zombies in the span of 48 hours. But unlike a sizable chunk of the movies that have attempted to conquer the genre in the past, 'Cargo' is not set in the expanses of a metropolitan city, but instead takes place in the gorgeous backdrop of the Australian outbacks.

By doing so, it surreptitiously avoids the clichés that often accompany such movies; there are no run-down and dilapidated supermarket stores; there are no ominous shots of a sky which has seemed to have gone overcast for no other reason than to reflect the somber and despondent mood permeating a decimated human population; and most importantly, there is no fight scene with a clique that wants to hoard all the resources for itself, because why not. That's not to say that 'Cargo' doesn't have any drawbacks of its own, but more on that later.

The near-flawless cinematography of Geoffrey Simpson captures the sheer vastness and beauty of one of the largest deserts in the world in all its grandeur; each shot perfectly capturing the picturesque rolling hills and arid landscape pockmarked with shrubs to convey the sense of foreboding, loneliness, and isolation that the main characters in the film often experience.

The movie starts with Andy and Kay in their houseboat (Source: Netflix)
The movie starts with Andy and Kay in their houseboat (Source: Netflix)

'Cargo' begins with a shot of the protagonists, Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) holed up in their houseboat as they attempt to stay away from the zones that have been worst affected by the zombie pandemic. They are running short on supplies and are desperate for help, with the well-being of their one-year-old daughter always on their mind. This human parental instinct to protect and nurture offspring above all else later becomes a running theme in the movie.

Andy's stubbornness - for good or for bad - is another. It initially costs him dearly; his refusal to leave his infected wife results in an accident that sees him infected as well and Rosie facing the prospect of growing up an orphan. But that same stubbornness later saw him refuse to give in to a failing body and mind, with his admirable mettle the key to Rosie's well-being.

A chance run-in with an aboriginal girl Thoomi (Simone Landers) who seems to be convinced that she can cure her infected father then diverges the plot into the two parallel storylines which will eventually culminate at the ending of the movie. It's here that tattooed and tribally painted aborigines chanting their guttural cries and mercilessly hunting down the infected is shown, offering a glimpse into why a little girl is all by herself in a dangerous world. 

Andy's isolation is one of the main talking points of the movie (Source: Netflix)
Andy's isolation is one of the main talking points of the movie (Source: Netflix)

The shots of the charred bodies serve to punctuate further that the tribe is not messing around when it comes to the infected. While the movie desperately seeks to shy away from normal convention, the aborigines do feel like the token 'badass' gang that populate these zombie apocalypse movies and hack and slash away in feverish glee. Though, in fairness, they do serve a more important purpose here. 

'Cargo' seeks to build the back story of this tribe through numerous such cutscenes throughout the movie, but does so poorly. There is no initial awareness that the girl and the tribe are related - it is one that the viewer can only piece together later - so when first confronted with the seemingly random whoops and cries of these aborigines, one can't help but feel a little bit confused.  

The film makes it a point to hammer into the viewer that Andy, as well as the rest of the human population, is alone and left to fend for themselves. At no point, at least right until the end, are there more than 4 or 5 people in any given scene. Society has collapsed, and the few that have made it out alive are in their own desperate fight for survival. It's not that no one is capable of empathy, it's that they quite literally cannot afford it.

Andy's descent into madness is beautifully portrayed (Source: Netflix)
Andy's descent into madness is beautifully portrayed (Source: Netflix)

At the same time, 'Cargo' also conveys that even in times of great adversity, there are those who go above and beyond the call of duty to help those in need. Case in point, Etta (Kris McQuade), a teacher who stayed back when everyone else left and helps Andy despite his obvious affliction and Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), who despite having no real association or connection with Andy, plays a major role in getting Rosie to safety. 

It's a pleasant and surprising (or disappointing, if you're that kind of a person) twist that a so-called zombie movie does not have zombies as its primary antagonist. Instead, that role is fulfilled by Vic Carter (Anthony Hayes), a swashbuckling, gun-tooting, gas-guzzling, covertly racist middle-aged man who seems hellbent on hoarding jewelry and cash in a world where they have no value, showing once and for all, that avarice and greed do, after all, trump all other sentiments, and is humanity's universal language. 

The directors don't forget to remind the viewer that Andy does not have much longer to live and that his window of getting his daughter to safety is growing smaller by the minute. Rather than portraying it in the typical aggressive, in-your-face way, they leave it to the audience's imagination to piece together the horror from the victim's perspective.

The film does not resort to cheap jump scares (Source: Netflix)
The film does not resort to cheap jump scares (Source: Netflix)

The stills of sticky sap; those of blood and spewed guts, which are shown to be growing increasingly appealing; the rapidly ascending frequency of convulsions; and Andy's irrational desire to dig into the ground and bury his head, a symptom that plagues all the infected, all paint the picture of a man who is on the edge of oblivion.

The music score also does well to exude this unique brand of horror. Staying true to the tone of a movie where nothing is forced, the music does not fall prey to the pitfalls of traditional horror - which while straying away from cheap jump scares still eludes to an increasing tempo in the background score to scare the audience. Instead, it relies on its subtlety and hopes that the empathy for the characters equates to the sense of trepidation that the directors seek.

Most of all, 'Cargo' insists that hope is never lost and that friends can come in all shapes and sizes. Andy's hopeful quest to find his daughter a home is aided by none other than Thoomi, who despite being so young and haunted by guilt, stays by his side and sees him through to the end. 

'Cargo' also focuses on Andy's unlikely friendship with Thoomi (Source: Netflix)
'Cargo' also focuses on Andy's unlikely friendship with Thoomi (Source: Netflix)

'Cargo' is aided by a script that has set it apart from the host of other films that flood the genre every year and gives a take on a side of the zombie apocalypse so rarely shown. It doesn't focus on the gore, violence, and fast-paced action sequences, but explores how human interaction suffers when challenged by such desperate circumstances.

That being said, the execution of the said concept could have been much better. The movie is too slow-paced, and more often than not, the dialogue between the characters is heavy, dreary, and feels like it's of little consequence. Andy's devolution into a zombie, while shown brilliantly, doesn't evoke a sense of sadness because his relationship and emotional attachment with Rosie felt plastic. 

Rosie, who the movie is supposed to revolve around, feels more like a prop used to propel the story forward to its ending than someone who feels central to how the plot evolves. In doing so, the audience is left wondering who the movie is about - Thoomi? Andy? Rosie? All of them? - and as a consequence feels little for any of them. And while Vic provoked a sense of distaste, the fact that he felt like the only character who provoked anything at all, should speak volumes. 

'Cargo' does not live up to expectations (Source: Netflix)
'Cargo' does not live up to expectations (Source: Netflix)

There is also an issue of choppy editing, with several of the cutscenes feeling unnecessary and forced. One particular shot in the movie cuts so abruptly (you'll know it when you see it), that even the most untrained of eyes easily can comfortably point out that the flow had been interrupted. You're left with a lingering feeling that good acting performances were let down by some less-than-proficient direction. 

If one were to put the entire summary of 'Cargo' into a sentence it could be elucidated as a zombie movie without the zombies. A commendable attempt at rejigging a tried and tested genre, but one that ultimately fails to do so and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers.