Walking alone in CargoThough they’ve been few and far between, genuinely good science fiction films have been slowly emerging from the U.S. and now Switzerland is getting in on the action. The Canadian premiere of Cargo at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival was on my list of must-see this year and definitely met my expectations. It combines story elements that we’ve seen before, but still presents an entertaining, unique entry into the genre.

It’s the 23rd century and the Earth is uninhabitable. People crowd onto dirty, disease ridden space stations and try to scrape together enough money to travel to Rhea, an idyllic planet slowly being colonized by Kuiper Enterprise. Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh), a young doctor, signs up as a medic on a cargo freighter for an eight year – four there and four back – journey to earn her passage and be reunited with her family on Rhea. During the final eight-month solo shift on watch, Laura discovers she and the ship’s small crew are not alone. As members of the crew start turning up dead, they begin a hunt for the murderer hiding in the shadows amongst them.

The film builds tension by bringing the claustrophobic feel of the ship to the forefront as soon as Laura comes aboard. The complete isolation of space continuously encroaches on the characters’ interactions with each other as there is no escape or outside help available. As we watch Laura during her shift, the deafening silence is nearly as unbearable as the shear boredom she must feel. Filmmakers also hint at the menace lurking around the corner without delivering the anticipated big scare.

It’s quite amazing to discover the film was made on only $2 million (U.S.), but not surprising it took eight years to complete Switzerland’s first science fiction picture. The one thing that cannot be denied is writer/director Ivan Engler did his research before entering the arena. Though a particular film appears to be an obvious influence on the plot, it will remain unnamed here to avoid spoiling a crucial discovery by the characters. But other nods go to sci-fi masterworks such as Sunshine and Alien.

Just last week, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said humans should be looking to colonize another planet in the next hundred years or face extinction. Though Cargo is set slightly further in the future, the motivating premise is obviously not that far-fetched. Moreover, with the less-than polished aesthetic and principal reliance on mechanization, the futuristic realism is not entirely implausible either. Further rooting the film in reality, the name of the company “building worlds” is taken from the Kuiper belt, which is named after a Dutch scientist and refers to a region of the solar system beyond Neptune and including Pluto.

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