WHAT IS IT: “Cargo”, a moody, ambitious sci-fi thriller from Switzerland, directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, and co-written by Engler, Arnold Bucher, Johnny Hartmann, and Thilo Roscheisen. Made for an estimated $4.5 Swiss Francs (about $4.2 million dollars), the film recently made its North American debut at the SXSW Festival.

“Cargo” is set in the far future, where mankind has, once again, made a mess of things and are now forced to reside in orbiting space station/city monstrosities. The only escape from this dreary existence is the paradise planet of Rhea, which is open to everyone – as long as you have the bucks.

WHO ARE THEY?: Anna-Katharina Schwabroh, a German TV actress making her feature film debut, stars as Laura Portmann, a doctor who has contracted for a lengthy stint on a cargo ship in order to make the money to travel to Rhea, where she longs to be reunited with her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner). Her contract lands her onboard the Kassandra, a cargo ship hauling building supplies to Station 42, presumably another dreary monstrosity in some remote corner of the universe. But because space travel is long and uneventful and “light speed” is not yet a possibility, the trip will take 8 years, with the crewmembers spending much of their journey in gooey cryo sleep and taking 8 ½ month turns to watch over the slow, lumbering, and very old ship. Also onboard is Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold), a sky marshal (or is that space marshal?) tasked with guarding the ship because of recent acts of terrorism by anti-technology folks back home.

During Laura’s shift, she realizes that there are other people onboard the ship besides the crew. She wakes up the Captain (Pierre Semmler), who is not at all pleased to be awaken from his gooey sleep, while sky marshal Decker has mysteriously awakened himself. Although the men suspect that Laura is seeing things, it turns out she’s very much correct, and when the Captain is unceremoniously murdered, Decker and Laura are forced to wake the other crewmembers – the stern second-in-command Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller), happy-go-lucky wrench monkeys Prokoff (Claude-Oliver Rudolph) and Vespucci (Michael Finger), and the shy systems analyst Yoshida (Yangzom Brauen). Together, they attempt to uncover the killer, while at the same time figuring out what is going on with the Kassandra.

DANGER! DANGER! POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD! It’s … hard to talk about “Cargo’s” unfolding mystery without exposing its entire Third Act storyline, because untraditionally, the film reveals all around the hour mark in a rather unceremonious bit of exposition that will no doubt leave some viewers thinking, “Wait, it’s your movie’s BIG REVEAL, and that’s all the enthusiasm and pizzazz you can muster?” Not exactly exciting stuff, and while the lack of grand reveal makes sense in the context of the understated cinematic mood Engler and Etter have established thus far, it still makes for boring cinema. For contrast, consider what directors (DELETED) of the Hollywood movie (DELETED) did with their reveal, and you’ll realize that so much more could have been done with “Cargo’s” big moment without ruining the gritty, somber rhythms of the film. (Once you’ve seen “Cargo”, you will easily guess who the directors (yes, I said directors) and the movie I’ve censored above are.)

THINK DANNY BOYLE’S SUNSHINE: Although it seems to be heading toward “Alien” or “Pandorum” territory, especially in the early goings, “Cargo” has more in common with Danny Boyle’s underappreciated “Sunshine”. Like Boyle’s movie, the grinding reality of interstellar space travel without the luxury of “Star Wars” or “Star Trek”-esque movie tech is painstakingly realized in “Cargo”. The film manages some impressive imagery with its limited resources, counting among the highlights the first few minutes, which opens in space to establish the future’s orbiting cityscape in all its technological marvel and coldness. Engler and Etter squeezes every ounce from the Kassandra’s interior production designs as well, providing “Cargo” with a fully realized, breathing ship that seems to harbor more secrets than we have time to explore.

THE FINAL VOYAGE: There’s no way around it: “Cargo” falters badly with almost its entire Third Act, which feels like a denouement that just refuses to end. Action junkies will find the film disappointing, and if you’re expecting a horror movie in space, or some sort of alien menace, you’re out of luck. “Cargo” has an epic story of human survival in mind, told from the point of view of a lonely woman who longs for salvation and the mysterious people she meets along the way. Like the aforementioned “Sunshine”, “Cargo” takes a while to get going, and never really seems to know where it’s ultimately headed, even though we already know the mission at hand. The film’s visuals are for the most part excellent, with perhaps the exception of a lengthy space walking sequence which seems to have been tossed together rather haphazardly, resulting in a series of illogical moments that culminates in the not entirely believable swan song for a character.

Anna-Katharina Schwabroh makes for a sympathetic heroine, mostly because Laura is the film’s only fully realized character. Martin Rapold’s mysterious Samuel Decker is downright baffling; I never really understood the guy, even after all is revealed. I’m still not sure what the hell is Vespucci and Prokoff’s, ahem, relationship, and Lindbergh and Yoshida exists purely to provide exposition at the right moments.

While it certainly maintains a very European sensibility, especially in terms of narrative and pacing, “Cargo” treads familiar ground, taking a lot of its plot cues from Hollywood films like “Sunshine”, the recent “Pandorum”, and that mysterious film I won’t mention because doing so would completely destroy the film’s big surprise for you. But while it’s not the groundbreaking sci-fi film I’ve heard it being heralded as, it is still a very good and at times even thoughtful sci-fi thriller worth seeking out for fans of the form.

Ivan Engler, Ralph Etter (director) / Ivan Engler, Patrik Steinmann, Johnny Hartmann, Arnold Bucher, Thilo Röscheisen (screenplay)
CAST: Martin Rapold … Samuel Decker
Anna-Katharina Schwabroh … Laura Portmann
Michael Finger … Claudio Vespucci
Claude-Oliver Rudolph … Igor Prokoff
Yangzom Brauen … Miyuki Yoshida
Maria Boettner … Arianne Portmann
Regula Grauwiller … Anna Lindbergh
Pierre Semmler … Pierre Lacroix

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