“Zombies? How 2011.” That was a friend’s response to me telling them about Cargo, a new Netflix original movie that debuted on the streaming site last Friday. Originally conceived as a short film and then expanded into feature-length by Australian co-directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, Cargo does indeed fall into a familiar category. You know, the “post-nearly-apocolyptic-event where a disease turned a lot of people into zombies and now they’re shuffling around eating other people and civilization is pretty much over” category. Which was really popular from 2002 on, with great movies like 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland all taking their shots at making it terrifying or hilarious, or sometimes both. And it all seemed to peak with The Walking Dead, a show that had a few good seasons, a few more bad ones and then killed Glenn like that, so it can go straight to hell.
Considering all that, I feel like what my friend was really asking (and justifiably so) was, in 2018 do we really need another take on the horrors of the undead? And to the credit of everyone involved – the writers, actors and directors – after watching Cargo I would say, absolutely yes. So much more than a retread of tired tropes and ideas, Cargo is not only original, but important, particularly for what it brings to a genre mostly obsessed with brains – a big ole beating heart.
Much of that heart resides with Martin Freeman – onscreen for almost every frame of the movie, his performance has to be good for Cargo to succeed. And it’s not just good, it’s vulnerable and desperate and never false for a second. From The Office (UK version) to Bilbo to his Watson on Sherlock, Freeman’s career has been a lesson in how to make audiences care about nice, average-type guys. And his character here, Andy, follows that pattern – he’s an average guy in a crisis, trying to keep himself and his family from becoming just another tally on a list of this pandemic’s casualties. When we meet Andy, his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby Rosie, they’re already in transit, trying to escape the disease and its rabid victims by making their way to what they assume will be safety on a military base. They’re a pretty adorable little family unit, and they’re holding it together as best they can until, as it inevitably must, something goes terribly wrong.
Like all my favorite speculative fiction, Cargo doesn’t waste time with exposition – it shows us what its world is like. When Andy sees a happy family playing by the river, all it takes is the father flashing the gun hidden in his waistband to remind him (and us) that this isn’t the time to make friends with strangers. A government issued kit to treat the infected includes a watch to track th 48 hour incubation period, all the time it takes for someone to turn into an aggressive, hollow shell of their former selves. The kits come with a truly unsettling brain piercing tool, so the infected can end it all before they descend into a fugue state. A government issued suicide tool – that says a lot about how bad things are.
Knowing that Cargo had been expanded from a critically acclaimed short film did shed some light on its weaknesses. As Freeman treks through the mostly abandoned and very rural Australian Outback, some of the other characters and scenarios he runs into feel less than completely fleshed out. We get side stories involving a retired teacher holed up by herself and a survivalist named Vic (Anthony Hayes) with questionable morals and a strained relationship with his wife. For the most part these seem like they’re biding time as we watch the clock tick down to Andy’s final attempt at refuge.
Yet there’s enough originality in the film’s details to make it worth pushing through the blander parts: A striking symptom as the sick get sicker is terrifying seizures and blackouts. For some utterly unknown, those who have “turned” are overcome by the urge to bury their heads – the visuals of their frantic digging and bodies sticking out of the ground in contorted fetal positions are that much more terrifying for being so strange. And then there’s the film’s connection to a larger narrative – the history of how an indigenous people were systematically marginalized while being robbed of their land, culture and children. As Andy’s story unwinds, so does that of a young indigenous girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers). Their mutual despair and desire to live allies their causes, and along the way, their encounters expose the insults and injustices Thoomi’s people battled long before this most recent “end of the world”. In fact for them, the world ended when the first white colonizers arrived, and there’s a kind of sweet retribution in the fact that Aboriginal tribes seem to be navigating this current crisis most successfully, the spiritual and practical tools handed down generation to generation providing them with guidance to keep their people safe.
How can we address the evils of our past and possible horrors of our future in the same story? It seems Australian cinema will show us the way. This film’s power lies in a simple narrative told with strong performances and a wealth of sincerely emotional moments. Zombie films are usually about the survival of the few, but this one wants us to think about what we’re all living for. In turn heartbreaking and hopeful, Cargo knows we may not all make it to a better world, but however far we get, empathy and understanding are the key to moving forward together.