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Categories: Movie Reviews

Netflix’s Cargo strips down the zombie genre to get to the emotional core of Martin Freeman’s performance but, Mark Birrell argues, it’s not enough to keep the film moving.

Netflix’s outback zombie flick may hold in store some refreshing adjustments to the original formula for those who still see life in the undead. But, much like with the rules and regulations of other horror sub-genres (say, for example, slashers), if you know where it’s heading then it’s a long, slow, decomposing shuffle of a death march to an entirely predictable outcome.

In a world taken over by what can, most accurately, be described as snot-zombies, Martin Freeman plays a middle-aged man journeying throughout the wilds of Australia to an uncertain destination with his wife and infant daughter. The lack of backstory isn’t particularly bothersome, the film’s correct in assuming that it doesn’t matter within the context of its plot, but it’s much more underdeveloped than wilfully vague. It isn’t just hard to imagine what type of person Freeman’s character was before the apocalypse, it’s hard to understand what type of person he became after it. Usually, in survival films, the principal characters demonstrate some kind of survival skill, personifying some dimension of the human condition or will to live, but, in Cargo, it’s mostly just a wonder how any of the characters made it that far in the first place.

It’s certainly one of the most laid back apocalypses committed to film. The dead seem to litter the countryside in a fairly spread out manner, neither really that threatening or even imposing. They appear as and when the script needs them to but they’re so incidental to the overall plot that it’s hard to see why they’re in the film at all outside of marketing value. Especially when the primary source of death in Cargo’s world appears to be easily avoidable mistakes. Freeman plays the Sad Dad chic to as close to perfection as any actor in this day and age could, no doubt about it, but it really doesn’t help the film’s sense of pace. It takes place in an nondescript part of the bush over a nondescript amount of land and none of the characters ever seem to have a sense of direction but have no trouble constantly bumping into one another through nothing other than pure chance.

Much like another contemporary example of the weary genre, The Cured, Cargo’s packing its own original paraphernalia for the zombie apocalypse but it handles its subtext with considerably less grace. The themes (if you can really call them that) of environmentalism and racism are delivered with the subtlety and detail of a shotgun blast (its feelings about fracking are, quite literally, spelled out for the audience) and, as a moral fable, it’s pretty maudlin and a bit trite outside of Freeman’s performance, which is the only real meat of the film and fairly improvised. You could say that he carries Cargo but there’s really not that much to carry. The film has a lot of time for blood and guts but absolutely none for practical effects, horror or tension. A lot of it feels very episodic and its desire to reach an emotional destination is far stronger than its desire to plan, or map out, the journey.  

In terms of low-budget zombie films you can, and will, do a lot worse than Cargo, there is absolutely no denying that, but it never has the courage to fully lean on the parts of itself that work; falling back onto the aggravating tropes of the sub-genre like continually not being able to hear people sneaking up on you even though you’re in the middle of a barren, empty, wasteland.

Cargo is available to view now on Netflix.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, and lifelong cinephile, who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University of London. You can follow him on Twitter @markwbirrell

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Posted on May 21, 2018

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