CARGO English-friendly German BluRay Review
( Swiss - in - Spaaaaaace ! )
With every boy in the world going through the phase of wanting to be an astronaut at some point in his life, it should not be surprising that there are filmmakers in every country who'd like to film a big science-fiction movie taking place in space. It's the stuff of dreams after all, no matter how realistic or scientific you make the end result.
The big problem facing these filmmakers is of course the dependence on very expensive special effects to give such a film the necessary "Ooomph", no matter if they focus on action or on expositionary background. That's why there are so many of the infamous "jumpsuits-in-space" movies, with people in overalls running through the exact same three corridors for 90 minutes, interspersed with a second of two of the exterior of a cheap-ass spaceship.
So imagine my surprise when I was shown footage and stills of last year's Swiss film "Cargo", because it was the total opposite of what I just described. Switzerland may not be the most obvious source of serious high-concept science fiction but I'll be damned if they didn't pull it off! Painstakingly made over a period of nine years and lovingly put together on a low budget (with today's exchange rate close to five million USD), "Cargo" somehow featured what looked like huge sets and awesome ship designs.
Second surprise: the German BluRay is already out and is English-friendly. Time for a look and a review!
In the 23rd century the human race is in dire straits. Earth is polluted to the point of being uninhabitable, and people live in huge overcrowded space stations. Thankfully, several light years out in space the planet Rhea has been successfully converted for human settlement, but only the very wealthy can afford to live there.
Laura wants to be reunited with her sister who moved to Rhea after winning a lottery. To get the amount of money necessary for the trip, Laura becomes a physician on a cargo flight. These flights are well paid but very unpopular, as they can take years and the crews spend most of their time in frozen sleep. Also, the cargo ships are often targeted for terrorist attacks and need to be guarded.
Laura's assigned flight is no different: it takes four years to deliver their cargo, four years to go back to Earth. The ship is a near derelict, the crew is unmotivated to say the least and an arrogant security officer has been added to the roster for security reasons.
After three years of sleep it is Laura's turn for a lonely 8 month watch, taking care of the ship and its frozen crew, and as nearly everything is automated this is b-o-o-o-r-i-n-g as hell. But after a while Laura becomes convinced she's not the only one walking around on the ship. When she sees someone in the cargo hold, she decides to raise the alarm and awaken the captain.
Faced with disbelief, Laura and several awakened crew members examine the hold of the ship. But strange accidents start to happen and the hold does not seem to contain the construction materials listed on the bill...
Not to be confused with the German thriller about human trafficking from 2006, this "Cargo" is one of those deep-space science fiction films like "Silent Running" or "Alien". After a red-herring-opening which turns out to be an advert for "living on Rhea", "Cargo" delivers its first truly stunning shots when the opening credits give you a tour along the exterior of a floating space-city. It's a powerful opening which clearly states that there will be no skimping on special effects here. And thankfully the movie indeed doesn't. Not all effects are equally good (a shot of Laura looking out of a window reveals some iffy cgi) but the vast majority of the scenes and scenery totally convinces, and the technical design is never less than impressive.
"Cargo" took a long time to create and it shows. Long-distance space travel may be boring in itself, but here the details (and even the details of details) have obviously been pondered to bits, fleshing out the spaceship "Cassandra" until it becomes as much a character as the humans. The corridors never give off the cheap aforementioned "jumpsuits-in-space" feeling so often encountered in this genre, and the cargo hold itself is a huge 3D sliding puzzle from hell. It makes this spaceship a surprisingly rich environment to have the story take place in.
That story in itself, however, is less brilliant. Obviously hammered into different shapes over the many years of development, it lacks a cohesive flow from beginning till end. Events just happen or are signposted much too clearly. Like "The Abyss" or "Sunshine" it also suffers from "sudden mad murderer syndrome" and there is some painfully obvious stacking-of-odds near the end, just to make sure some chosen characters will not reach the end credits. It doesn't ruin the film but the story will not be what you'll remember the most.
On the other hand the acting is quite good, with especially lead actress Anna Katharina Schwabroh giving a very convincing performance as Laura. Everyone plays it straight here as the script does not contain any comic relief whatsoever, and both the scientific design and the story's morality are treated with deadly seriousness. But instead of becoming an annoyance, this leaden atmosphere works to the film's advantage for a change. With the small crew trapped aboard a huge ship, itself tiny in the vastness of deep space, "Cargo" generously taps into both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and accurately conveys feelings of both loneliness and oppressiveness.
By the time the finale unfolds you may not care much for the story, but you DO care for the characters and the visuals become even more impressive. A nice example is the actual unloading of the titular cargo, which is done through an insanely intricate ballet of arms and cranes, against a backdrop of a floating array of storage facilities. It's almost jawdropping in its ambition and complexity, and thankfully directors Engler and Etter keep the action here relatively slow and easy to follow.
So the film looks good and that's not only courtesy of (mostly) good effects and impressive sets, but also of decent camera work. It's nice and refreshing to be given a chance to actually SEE what's happening, even when people are running around or fighting.
Is it brilliant? No. But it's surprisingly good and a very impressive debut by these filmmakers. And on my BluRay this disc has had several spins already.
In space, you have to solve your own problems no matter how outlandish. "Cargo" is a nice little convincing thriller which might have been a Si-Fi "movie of the week" if it didn't look at least ten times as expensive. It was obviously a labor of love for all people involved and it shows. Excellent designs and surprisingly good acting lift this far above what's usually found in this genre.
Not a true classic, but definitely a nice find. Warts and all, I enjoyed "Cargo" a lot. If you keep your expectations in check, this film is much recommended.
On to the BluRay:
Note: this very week there are also DVD and BluRay releases of this film in the UK. I haven't heard a peep yet about these editions so if people want to chime in about them in the comments, please feel free to do so. The version I'm reviewing here is the German one released by Ascot Elite. I presume it's region B encoded (so be careful if you don't have a regionfree player and live in a non-B region like the USA) but the cover misleadingly states "region 2". Huh? This IS a BluRay, right?
Anyway,the disc is packaged in one of those smaller,thinner BluRay versions of the DVD Amaray, and it features a reversible cover to get rid of the annoying (and large) "16" rating.
Popping in the disc, you first get a few forced but thankfully skippable trailers for "The Fourth Kind" and "Triangle", both dubbed in German.
AV-quality is very good, in fact maybe a bit TOO good for some of the less convincing effects, which probably looked fine on a big screen but fare less good on the brutally harsh sharpness of this disc. But the best shots in the film including the huge station in the beginning are a delight to watch, the space-city's many hulls covered in what looks to be millions and millions of tiny pinpricks of light. Nothing wrong with this image.
Sound is likewise good with a German DTS 5.1 soundtrack. There is no English dub (not missed either) but the English subs are very good and easy to follow.
Next we get to the extras, and while I would have loved to give a list of them the truth is that the sheer amount of them just about broke me.
First we have two commentary tracks in German. One is with director Engler and producer Wolfisberger, an informal chat mostly about how they met and how this project came to be in the past 9 years. It's a fun track even if both gentlemen hardly ever refer to what's shown on-screen. The second track is with Ivan Engler (again) and one of the designers. A detailed view on the actual look of all the scenes, this features loads of interesting information.
Both tracks come recommended but only if you speak German, because unfortunately (like all extras) these are not subtitled. A shame as both tracks are fun, the speakers being immensely enthusiastic and justifiably proud of the end result.
Next there is a making-of, ten minutes of deleted (or extended) scenes, eight minutes of bloopers, and there is a funny selection of fragments of television programs featuring items about the shooting of "Cargo". Funny bit: one of these is from a film program where the production is chided for calling itself the first Swiss science-fiction film, as someone else had shot a sci-fi short in the late sixties already. And there is a short interview with the (in)famous H.R. Giger directly after he's been given a private screening, and which shows the artist very impressed with the production values (and astonished when he hears how small the budget was).
Then the extras really start: the marketing materials and the minidocs.
Many, MANY of them.
It's like they loaded this disc like you would a DVD, and then discovered that BluRay fits a lot more so they said "let's keep on loading stuff on it".
Take marketing materials for instance. Trailers and teasers are here in abundance which is good, but there are even teasers which were never released! There are items on the designs of the film posters. You get those posters, in HD, often both with-and without credits on them. They even have the full press-maps here which were used by Engler and Wolfisberger to scrounge around for money at festivals during the early 2000s.
Then there is what makes up the bulk of the extras: the designs and production reports.
Early designs, late designs, design changes, sketches, pre-visualizations, cgi-tests, YOU NAME IT. A lot of these sketches and cgi-tests are included in HD, and these look gorgeous.
Seriously, if you are a fan of space-ship art this disc is almost a must by virtue of these items alone, because there is enough here to fill a museum with. Many of the cgi-tests are included as movies as well, and... wow. It's easy to see people spending 9 years thinking about this. The "cargo unloading technique" is also explained through cgi-films and this is much appreciated, even if it is all unnecessary detail. It just shows how much thought went into the designing.
Then there are the production diaries covering the financing, the casting, set building, shooting...
I've included some examples here below, but this is just an excellent set of extras, explaining in detail well... EVERYTHING you'd like to know about this film. It's all I could think of wanting and then some.
It's a shame the extras are not subtitled and I don't know how many of these made it onto the UK disc. Most of the design items don't need any subtitles however, so don't let the language barrier stop you from buying this disc.
In short: if you like this film, you'll love the BluRay. This disc comes VERY recommended although you'll get lots more out of it if you happen to speak German.