Warning: Spoilers, Mostly For The First Act
In a pop culture landscape littered with variations of the zombie apocalypse scenario, the monsters presented in Netflix’s Cargo aren’t that threatening, really. They don’t move fast, they don’t transform into flesh-eating killers at the turn of a dime, and most crucially — an infected person can be killed before transformation and never become a zombie at all. This isn’t a world where the dead rise in shambling hordes, or a bite turns someone into a brain-biting beast in a matter of minutes. In fact, it actually takes 48 hours for the transformation to complete — and it’s mostly marked by the excretion of some brownish goo and an instinctive preference for bloody, fleshy things. As such, Cargo isn’t filled with jump scares or even that much gore. Instead, the horror of the film is of the long, lingering variety. A dread that settles into your bones. A tough choice that’s impossible to make. A ticking clock. And a sense of desolation that doesn’t come from typical eerie, abandoned cities but from the barren, isolated landscape of the Australian Outback.
This is the world that Andy (Martin Freeman) lives in, along with his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their young daughter, Rosie. The family has escaped onto a houseboat, using a river as natural protection. They seem to have carved an oasis out for themselves, scavenging supplies where they can and trying to decide how to best reach the safety of a military base they see on their map. But with rations dwindling and a baby to think about, Kay urges Andy to take the risk of heading inland, toward civilization — where there will be more supplies to find, despite the greater dangers. Andy resists, preferring the safety of the river. And when he spots a capsized sailboat, he boards it to discover a windfall of food and goods, enough to keep them going for weeks more.
Too bad he doesn’t mention to Kay that he also sensed something disturbing on board the boat, because when he goes to take a nap she decides to board it herself and see if he missed anything worthwhile in his search…
You know where this is going, yeah?
So with his wife infected and the 48-hour clock ticking, Andy takes his family to shore and sets off to find a hospital. This is the first of those tough choices — the refusal to abandon his wife despite her own wishes, even though she is hours away from being an active threat to the safety of himself and his daughter. That capacity for love, that sentimentality, is exactly what separates the remaining humans from the monsters. But love isn’t the same as hope, and sentimentality isn’t the same as smarts — and Andy maybe should have put his wife out of her misery when he had the chance. Because it turns out that wounds speed up the transformation, and when their car crashes suddenly, Kay ends up pinned and bleeding out while her husband sits unconscious beside her.
You know where this is going, yeah?
The bulk of the film is Andy with his own fresh bite mark and ticking 48-hour clock, trying to find somewhere safe to leave Rosie after he’s gone. And it’s a strange thing, watching a movie where the survival of the protagonist isn’t even a possibility. Freeman is magnetic in the part, conveying desperation and determination in every shot, and the film takes its time watching him slowly unravel as obstacles are placed in his path. The thing is, there aren’t many people in the Outback to begin with, and the majority have been infected — though a good number have already been put down by an Aboriginal hunting party working to cleanse the land of the monsters. The few remaining uninfected humans that Andy manages to find in his journey all represent different ways of handling the end of the world: waiting for it with patience, or trying to capitalize on it with brutality and greed, or even giving up on it entirely. Only one, a young Aboriginal girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers), is capable of anything close to hope. Andy saves the girl from being used as bait in a zombie trap, and the pair begin to help each other as Andy’s time runs out.
There’s a message about the colonial history of Australia there if you want to read into it, the way several Indigenous characters are being used by white men to achieve their own ends (even Andy), but the film also allows that the Aboriginal people are the best equipped to survive in this new world order. Personally, I was too emotionally exhausted by Cargo to reflect much on its politics. It’s only now, a day later, that I can organize my thoughts enough to put that stuff into words. I’m still mostly struck by just how hard the film was to watch. The horror of the film comes from its all-encompassing dread: that you truly DO know where it’s going. But the journey toward that inevitable end still has room for beauty and triumph and pain and heartbreak. And maybe the fact that there is a journey at all, despite the inevitable, is another part of makes us human.
Look, this movie kinda broke me. I cried my fucking face off, then had to watch the finale of The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale just to recover enough to get off the couch. Let that be a warning to you. And if you are familiar with the original short film Cargo is based on, know that the original creators Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke have brought enough new material to the underlying plot that you’ll still find plenty to keep you invested.