In 2013’s “Cargo,” a seven-minute viral video that cleverly subverted several walking-dead clichés, directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke devised a novel way for a zombie-bitten father to lead his uninfected infant child to safety. Now, reteaming with star Martin Freeman for the Netflix-bound feature version, the duo wind up indulging the overplayed tropes at which they poked fun five years earlier — most notably, the existential questions raised when parents or spouses are infected, knowing they will soon become a threat to those they love most.
Less a straightforward walking-dead nightmare than a low-key drama about humanity’s capacity for compassion and cruelty in the face of disaster, this familiar saga eschews jolting scares for survival-esque (and dark-heart-of-man) thrills, relying largely on Freeman’s compelling lead turn to set it apart from the genre.
Coasting down a middle-of-nowhere Australian river in a borrowed houseboat, Andy (Freeman) is only intent on looking after wife Kay (Susie Porter) and baby daughter Rosie (played by twins Lily Anne and Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, and Finlay and Nova Sjoberg). In this vast stretch of wasteland, some threats are visible — as with a riverbank clan whose dad immediately displays his firearm to Andy — while others remain just out of sight. No matter which direction danger lies, however, the couple’s conversations make clear that something has gone terribly awry in the world. Thus, when Andy chooses to investigate an abandoned ship for much-needed food and medical supplies, he does so with considerable caution.
By trying to placate Kay’s fears about that expedition, Andy inadvertently brings about tragedy, and before long, he and Rosie are ditching their aquatic ride and embarking on a trek across the dusty plains. Their journey is complicated by the real cause of Earth’s topsy-turvy condition: flesh-eating zombies, which are the byproduct of a viral infection. They soon find shelter courtesy of Vic (Anthony Hayes), a local Australian whose life they save and who, in exchange, takes them back to the makeshift residence he shares with Lorraine (Caren Pistorius). A hunter by trade, Vic seems like a good person to have around in these perilous times. Yet as in so many likeminded stories, his penchant for violence soon proves less a saving grace than one more thing to worry about for mild-mannered Andy, who can’t fire a rifle without first scrunching his face up in disgust.
In revelations about Vic’s means of combating this unholy epidemic, “Cargo” bolsters its formulaic action with an undercurrent about Australia’s racist history of oppressing its Aboriginal population. After intercutting these two seemingly unrelated strands throughout the first act, Andy’s path soon crosses with Thoomi (newcomer Simone Landers), a young Aboriginal girl trying to protect her “turned” father from her sister Josie (Natasha Wanganeen), who’s on a campaign to rid the country of its monsters through cleansing fire. Via Andy and Thoomi’s relationship, Ramke’s script finds a sturdy means of depicting, from both sides, the powerful bonds shared by parents and children, all while managing to transform the proceedings into something of a revisionist white-savior tale.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson captures the Outback in all its rugged, windswept glory, replete with numerous scenes infested with buzzing flies — persistent indicators of death’s presence in this most inhospitable of milieus. Capably edited and directed, “Cargo” never takes off into truly unpredictable terrain. Still, radiating not only paternal devotion but also a blunt matter-of-factness that amplifies as his situation becomes more dire, Freeman’s empathetic turn makes Andy an endearing center of attention, and the film — even for those who’ve seen its source material — a heartfelt entry in the overstuffed genre.