Perhaps more than any other genre, zombie horror is replete with predictable narratives and tired tropes.
“Cargo,” a character-driven Netflix original saved only by Martin Freeman’s riveting lead performance as Andy, seems different, at first. The setting is unique, its thematic concerns are fascinating, especially for a zombie movie, and the cast has passable chemistry. That’s all window-dressing, however, as the movie shrinks to near insignificance within the first thirty minutes.
A remake of the 2013 viral short film of the same name, directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke attempt to expand what was better left compressed. In the original short film, a father is bitten by his wife and transforms, all while carrying his infant daughter on his back. I won’t spoil it here, but his plan to bring her to safety is equal parts poignant and brutal. The journey there is quick by comparison but does more in seven minutes than its counterpart does in 100.
The feature length rushes that poignancy and, on its way, sidesteps important details that would make even the simplest scenes work. For example, the movie’s ostensible antagonist, Vic Carter (Anthony Hayes), has a fenced off compound. Made up of shipping containers, it’s fed by a gas generator and has enough food to last for months. Andy messes things up and Vic wants revenge, but Andy and his aboriginal friend Thoomie (Simone Landers) evade him. He shows up again, conveniently, directly in their path despite there being no indication of him traveling there or following Andy and Thoomi at all.
It’s a small problem on its surface, but “Cargo” makes a habit of under explaining its movements. In the same way, its thematic concerns, specifically how it frames aboriginal ways of knowing versus western ways of knowing, are criminally underutilized. How native people would deal with the zombie apocalypse is a captivating avenue to explore and most of the movie’s best moments address this. Like the rest of “Cargo,” however, those issues are raised and dealt with superficially. Even worse, their significance is undercut by a last minute reveal that cheapens the movie as a whole. It’s a damn shame because “Cargo” has a strong lead performance, an interesting setting and unique themes. It just has no idea what to do with them.