Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Switzerland and Science Fiction

After my experiences with Oblivion I felt I needed to see a much better science fiction film. Naturally, this turned out to also be a great opportunity to look at something I haven't before, and I don't think a lot of people have covered (at least, I'm not aware of any scholars or bloggers who have covered this area): Swiss cinema. Yes, it seems Switzerland does in fact have a film industry, and produce its own movies. This has a bit of significance to me, seeing as I actually spent a portion of my childhood in Switzerland, though so far I've only seen one Swiss movie (though I have seen a few Swiss TV shows, Pingu perhaps being the most iconic).

That film was a 2009 science fiction movie titled Cargo, originally released in German but also available with English and French dubbing. I was first introduced to this film in high school when one of my teachers recommended it. Funnily enough, this was not actually my film teacher, but I received a number of recommendations from him and pursued most of them. I saw Cargo with an English dub years ago, and naturally it seemed like perfect material to revisit, but this time around I made sure I heard it in its original German (though I will confess the subtitles don't do it justice). My exposure to Swiss cinema may be limited, but Cargo is definitely a great first impression.

In the year 2270, the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable due to pollution. Most of the remaining population of humanity is confined to the crappy environments of orbiting space stations. It's a miserable life for most, living in confined and crowded places just trying to find some way of getting by. Fortunately there is hope in the form of a distant planet called Rhea, which has apparently been the site of successful colonization, but getting there requires money, something a lot of people still don't have. This is the case for Dr. Laura Portman (Anna Katharina Schwabroh), a young woman desperate to reunite with her sister Arianne (Maria Boettner), who successfully moved to Rhea years ago. Hoping to get the money, Portman manages to get a job working as a medic aboard a cargo ship Kassandra.

At first, it proves to be a lonely life, during which most of the crew is in cryosleep, taking rotating shifts to maintain the ship during its automated flight to a space station. However, that all changes when Portman has an unexpected encounter, leading to an investigation of the cargo hold that ends in the unexplained murder of the ship's captain (Pierre Semmler). Suddenly it becomes clear that the mission was not as simple as the crew initially thought. Something much bigger is going on, some members of the crew are not who they appear to be, and flight lieutenant Anna Lindbergh (Regula Grauwiller) seems to be in on it and doing everything she can to keep them from finding out. Now it's up to Laura Portman and security officer Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold) to get to the bottom of this strange mystery before Kassandra reaches its destination.

There is definitely a lot of influence on this film from earlier, perhaps better known, works of science fiction. The basic structure of the narrative definitely has some resemblances to Alien, and some of the aesthetics used in the worn-down style of future technology call to mind the likes of that film and Dark Star. There is even one supporting character, Claudio Vespucci, who I can't help noticing has a vibe that reminds me a bit of Dave Lister from Red Dwarf. A lot of the space visuals probably draw from the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, though at the same time I find myself wondering if Gravity might have borrowed some ideas from Cargo's climactic extravehicular sequence. That said, Cargo should not be considered a rip-off of any of these films. Part of the charm with this film is that it takes those ideas and does its own thing with them. There is a rather unique feeling to Cargo that does not come with other science fiction films.

The visuals are incredible on so many levels, be it in the vast long shots of outer space or in the shots of the grimy interiors of Kassandra. Outside, some incredible work is put into the designs of the space stations and space ships, as well as the exterior shots of planets and the one scene where the characters have to step outside. Inside the ship, there seems to be a balance of remaining creative while also trying to make things look real. There is a "used future" aesthetic reminiscent of Alien and Dark Star in just how everything seems to be decaying (there's even an airlock door that doesn't close properly). It makes for some very curious environments, especially for the scenes dealing with the cryochamber and the cargo hold.

The film's story is also fast-paced and easy to follow. I never found it to get confusing at any one point. I think the only flaw I could note was that perhaps the romance between Dr. Portman and Decker may have happened a little too quickly, but even that wasn't a huge issue. In fact it might even be justified by the simple fact that the characters were under an extreme amount of stress at the time and probably not thinking clearly. I would definitely say that Laura Portman is a strong character for the lead, seeing as she is the one who does a lot of the investigating, and ultimately goes on to play a crucial role in the film's final moments. Decker makes for a suitable partner. Lindbergh also serves as an interesting antagonist, and I'll admit it was interesting to see a female protagonist going against a female villain without any apparent intent to arouse the viewer to play it off as attractive.

I would recommend looking at Cargo if you get the chance. It is definitely a better movie than Oblivion, seeing as this one actually does have some strong female characters and a far less predictable narrative. Science fiction is not something one would normally associate with Swiss filmmaking, but they guys behind Cargo really pulled it off, taking the ideas of classic science fiction films and putting their own spin on them. It is a really unusual science fiction film, and unique among the genre. It also should not be too hard to find, so I would say check it out.


  1. Sign me up! This sounds great!

    1. It's a pretty good movie for sure. It shouldn't be too hard to find either. I remember I managed to pick up my copy at my local HMV. I think it was on Netflix at one point as well (though it doesn't seem to be anymore).