by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 53RD SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The words Switzerland and science fiction are rarely, if ever, used in the same sentence. Swiss filmmaker Ivan Engler, hopes to change that with his decade-in-the-making, feature-length debut, "Cargo," a “slow-build,” environmentally themed science-fiction/thriller that both meets genre requirements and also subverts expectations. Show with minimal resources, "Cargo" is often the equal of bigger-budgeted Hollywood or European films, a credit to Engler, who co-wrote, co-directed, and co-edited "Cargo," and his collaborators on the film, both behind and in front of the camera.In the year 2267, environmental catastrophe, ecological disasters, and raging epidemics have left the Earth uninhabitable to humans and, presumably, most animal life. The remaining members of the human race live in cramped, overpopulated, under-resourced space stations. For the lucky (and wealthy) few, there’s hope: Rhea, an Eden-like planet in another solar system. Those who can’t afford the expensive ticket for the voyage to Rhea are forced to work on the space stations or on long haul, interstellar cargo vessels. Without faster-than-light travel, voyages typically take years each way. A rebel group claims the Earth (or parts of it) is habitable again and periodically engages in sabotage as political protest.
"Switzerland's first science fiction film worth the price of a rental."
Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh), a doctor desperate to join her sister, Arianne (Maria Boettner), on Rhea, signs on for an eight-year voyage aboard a cargo vessel (4 years there, 4 years back). As part of a crew that includes Pierre Lacroix (Pierre Semmler), the captain of the cargo ship, Anna Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), his second-in-command, Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold), an air marshal, Miyuki Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen), the ship’s computer/communications expert, and Claudio Vespucci (Michael Finger) and Igor Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph), the ship’s maintenance workers, Laura will spend most of her time aboard the ship in cryogenic suspension.
Three years into the voyage to bring construction materials to a distant space station, Laura, working alone, suspects she’s not alone. Laura awakens the captain and the air marshal (standard protocol), and later the rest of the crew. While members of the crew question Laura’s sanity, one crewmember dies, apparently in an accident. His (or her) death leads to the first of several discoveries, discoveries that, initially at least, suggest we’re in a killer-on-board thriller (e.g., Alien or its many imitators). Engler and his collaborators have something different in mind, but to say more (even mentioning Engler’s influences), would be to spoil Cargo and that’s something we shouldn’t do.What we can say about "Cargo," however, is that it’s an effective, slow-build thriller that easily slips between genres (and genre expectations). While Engler’s script has its rough spots, including an underwritten romance, clichéd characters (the worker-proles), and a central mystery that, when revealed, isn’t particularly original or inventive, he works in his thematic concerns without the didacticism typical of first-time filmmakers. The sets in "Cargo" never look less than convincing and minus one or two effects shots, look like a film several times the budget. One late-film scene in particular involving a spacewalk evokes similar scenes in "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Mission to Mars" (and looks just as convincing).
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originally posted: 04/22/10 18:00:00