‘Survival before the Fury Road’
There’s a stigma often attached to genre filmmaking that action, comedy and horror aren’t to be considered in the same vein as drama.
It’s a largely elitist argument carried out as a means of making value judgements on creative works, yet these narrow positions often disregard films that are skilfully crafted, full of emotional heft and brimming with tension that enthrals audiences. Cargo is this exact film and one of the best releases of 2018.
Adapted from writer/director Yolanda Ramke and co-director Ben Howling’s acclaimed short of the same name, Cargo is very much of familiar parts, yet in taking pieces of the post-apocalypse, zombies and survival bleakness, it transcends into a brilliant whole.
Set in a near-future Australia somewhere reminiscent between the original Mad Max and Fury Road, a contagious virus has society in disarray when were introduced to Andy (Martin Freeman, The Hobbit), who along with wife Kay (Susie Porter, Two Hands) and infant daughter Rosie are down to quarter rations as they venture down river in search of safety in a world gone mad.
Granted a moment of respite amid the omnipresent fear of encountering a zombie, along with the unknown responses of fellow paranoid survivalists, the brevity is short lived when Kay becomes infected. Given 48 hours to treat the virus, the trio head onto land in search of medical assistance in an effort to delay the rapidly deteriorating condition.
Becoming infected himself while trying to prevent the inevitable, Andy encounters Thoomi (Simone Landers), a young Indigenous girl in the midst of her own struggle to cure her father (Bruce R. Carter, Last Cab to Darwin), who she sees as having his soul stolen by the infection. With the unlikely duo pairing up in an effort to combat the disease, various encounters with an aspiring Immortan Joe (Anthony Hayes, Animal Kingdom), the spiritual Indigenous Cleverman (David Gulpilil, The Proposition) and a family intent on taking drastic measures to prevent becoming infected tests the limits of how far people are willing to go for survival.
While the premise frames Cargo as one of many examples of a well-worn genre, character is at the forefront of the film. There are moments of violence and gore, yet at no stage is there a sense of gratuity or intentional repulsion on the filmmakers’ part. At its core, the 105-minute feature debut is a study in retaining humanity in a world where it is largely absent.
Best known in film for his portrayal as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, Martin Freeman proves that in stripping away special effects and stylised action set pieces, the most compelling aspect of any story is the emotion of character. Beginning out as a well-meaning but not entirely understanding family man, Freeman’s portrayal sees Andy undertake genuine internal and external conflict as he is forced to contend with mortality and ensuring that the women he encounters are safe in a world predicated upon and perpetuated by the attitudes of male-dominated colonialism.
On the surface the world established by writer Yolanda Ramke and brought to life alongside Ben Howling is far enough removed from present day, but in taking creative licence with a number of discourses that exist in contemporary society, the world of Cargo can be seen as a progression, albeit exaggerated, of modern life.
Including commentary on the practice of extracting coal seam gas (commonly known as fracking) along with Anthony Hayes’ wannabe industrialist seeking to control all remaining resources and utilities for when society re-establishes, the sub-text of environmentalism can be seen throughout, but at no stage does it overbear the primary storyline to digress on an ideological soapbox.
With numerous historical observers noting the dramatic device of zombies being utilised to comment on societal fears of the unknown, epitomised by the works of the late George A. Romero, Cargo follows a similar tradition of genre-based storytelling with more on its mind.
Considered arguably the most acclaimed genre film of all time, the parallels between Mad Max: Fury Road and Cargo can be drawn in theme and style. Evidently produced under different budgetary conditions, Freeman’s Andy could realistically be repurposed as the logical progression of the Tom Hardy interpretation of Max Rockatansky with the emotional burden of a world on the brink of collapse resonating for both characters.
Similar genre themed and narrative links can be seen in post-apocalyptic films such as The Road and The Rover, yet unlike the acclaimed John Hillcoat and David Michod releases cited, the bleakness of the film subject doesn’t weigh down the viewer to the point of feeling drained and without hope. Likewise, the visual spectacle photographed impressively by Geoffrey Simpson (Shine) makes the most of the Australian outback setting to evoke greater effect than recent suburban set contemporary These Final Hours.
Incorporating elements of the Indigenous Dreamtime culture, there is respect shown to the manner in which Australia’s First People are depicted – in a lesser film it would not have been a stretch to see natives depicted as primitive savages to be made civilised by a white saviour. However, in resolving the film with a primary focus on the last bastion of civilisation being carried out in the traditional ways, there is a sense that the first two acts don’t justify the end point with enough substantive development.
This critique doesn’t diminish what Cargo does exceptionally well and in dedicating the film to the memory of Dr. G Yunupingu, the respect intended comes across as genuine. Contributing to the soundtrack recorded by Daniel Rankine aka Trials of A.B. Original fame, the inclusion of one of Yunupingu’s final recordings is further proof of the message evoked by dynamic creative force Adam Briggs at the 2017 ARIA Awards in showcasing Indigenous excellence in all fields.
Given a Netflix original release internationally and a limited theatrical run in Australia, Cargo is worth seeking out and supporting. With the summer movie season pitting studio blockbusters on a weekly basis for the next four months, this low-budget Australian genre picture is among the best films of 2018 that will hopefully find an audience appreciative of an immensely engaging journey with plenty on its mind.