An infected Martin Freeman has to save his baby from the zombie apocalypse in a film that’s more suspenseful on paper than on the screen.
It’s hard to come up with a new idea for a zombie story, but the makers of Cargo did it… five years ago. Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s short film told the story of a father trying to find a new home for his baby in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, after being bitten. It’s a stirring, macabre seven-minute motion picture, with a unique image at the center of it all. The short film is, in no uncertain terms, excellent.
Howling and Ramke have expanded that short into a feature length movie, still titled Cargo, and the transition makes a lot of sense. Cargo is a ticking clock story, set in a dying world populated mostly by peril. Martin Freeman (Black Panther) plays the father this time around, named Andy. After he’s bitten by a zombie, he knows he has only 48 hours to solve the problem of what to do with his infant daughter, Rosie, and so he ventures out into the unknown, braving dangers.
Small in scale, but big on suspense, on paper Cargo has a lot going for it. Martin Freeman brings with him a natural likability, in part because he’s an excellent actor, and in part because he carries a fair amount of positive baggage. Playing affable everymen (or everyhobbit) heroes for a lot of his career makes him a natural fit for this kind of empathetic material. We’d want him to succeed no matter what. That his goals are selfless and noble only adds to our investment.
The problem is that Freeman’s affability sometimes undercuts an otherwise intensely focused story. Again, he has 48 hours to save the life of a baby, and hopefully in a way that guarantees his child will grow up safely. He’s trapped in a wasteland, full of cannibal ghouls and human beings who, in many cases, long ago abandoned their humanity. And yet Andy spends so much of Cargo acting like he has all the time in the world, happily playing with his child and casually surveying his surroundings, that the suspense sometimes cools from a steady simmer to unremarkably lukewarm.
It’s only one of the reasons why Cargo frequently seems to flatten out. The film’s episodic storyline doesn’t ramp up the action often; our hero encounters one survivor after another, gets comfy, and then discovers that something is wrong – sometimes horribly wrong – and that he needs to find a new home for Rosie. There are moments of ingenuity but the tension rarely spikes.
Meanwhile, languid scenes of empty nature paint a haunting portrait of a world reverting back to pre-industrial roots, as the survivors abandon westernized notions of safety and affluence. But they also slow down Andy’s ticking clock, which makes the 105-minute movie feel longer than it actually is.
Cargo has novel interpretations of the popular zombie myth, from the infected literally burying their heads in the sand to grotesque pus smearing over their eyes, making them flail about wildly. The film’s tragic first act sets up the physical degradation that Andy will endure throughout the rest of the film, and the steps he has to take to prevent the same fate for his infant child range from understandable to unsettling to grotesquely beautiful.
Andy’s journey is mirrored, in a way, by a young girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers), who tries to save her infected father the same way Andy is trying to save his daughter. Their paths intersect, sometimes in highly unusual ways, but her character’s story isn’t quite as intense as Andy’s since her father is already zombified. Once they team up, however, it seems as though Cargo falls behind the audience in terms of the storytelling – perhaps because the movie just doesn’t want to end yet.