MOVIE REVIEWS (2014): I. Engler & R. Etter’s (2009) Cargo

23 May 2014

Summary (the TLDR Version)

Those who think “Earth or Space” makes a coherent or adequate dichotomy should consider also the dichotomy “Womb or World” as a place to live.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to watch more movies more promiscuously. Toward this end, each weekend, my partner and I each get to pick a movie, and neither of us have any veto power (so far!) over the choices. I’ve decided to reply, like I reply to books, to the movies chosen.

A Reply To: I. Engler & R. Etter’s (2009)[1] Cargo

On the off-chance that a synopsis of the film helps:

A woman traveling through deep space [with a crew to deliver construction materials, one should add] discovers a secret with deadly implications in this Swiss sci-fi drama. It’s the year 2267, and Earth’s environment is near the point of total collapse. Many have fled the Earth to live on Rhea, a beautiful planet with an atmosphere and ecosystem similar to our own, but it’s in a distant solar system and travel there is expensive. Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) is a doctor trying to raise the money to relocate to Rhea, where her sister is already living; she takes a job with Kuiper Enterprises aboard the Kassandra, a battered space freighter making a run to a faraway space station. It takes eight years to travel from Earth to the space station, and most of the crew spends their time frozen in artificial hibernation, as crewmen taking turns working an eight and a half month shift while conscious. As Portmann watches over the ship alongside security marshal Samuel Decker (Martin Rapold), who protects the ship from technophobic terrorists, she is convinced something is alive and making trouble in the Kassandra’s cargo hold, and becomes concerned enough to wake Captain Lacroix (Pierre Semmler) and his men from their artificial slumber. While Lacroix is certain Portmann simply has an overactive imagination, in time it’s revealed someone on board the Kassandra possesses a dangerous secret. Cargo was the first feature film from directors Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter; featuring impressive special effects despite a relatively low budget of $4.8 million, Cargo earned enthusiastic review from European sci-fi fans before making its American debut at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival (from here).

First off, the science fiction elements of this film generally look good; also, in the basic nuts and bolts of both creating moody suspense (in the earlier parts of the film) and also later in it keeping things guessing about twists in the plot, then this film generally succeeds at meeting these basic criteria of filmmaking. It seems to have learned well from the prototypes of Kubrick’s (1968)[2] 2001: A Space Odyssey and Scott’s (1979)[3] Alien, even if sometimes the sense of allusion to those films makes me desire more to watch those films than this one.

Thematic Aspects

Below, I analyse some of the narrative aspects (and my confusions about them), but the thing I most want to address about this film concerns its central theme—a theme that goes back to my fundamental objection about Cuaròn’s (2013)[4] Gravity (symbolised in the line “I hate space”) and to the heaping pile of stink that “space” (as a theme) gets treated to to an absurd degree and stupidly in Hopkin’s (1998)[5] Lost in Space.

My basic point: if we would survive as human beings then, on logical grounds, we cannot remain on Earth indefinitely without figuring out how to replenish our by definition finite (however huge) supply of the resources necessary for human life. Of course, let 90% of us die in some mass catastrophe, even this only makes the duration of our (much, much smaller) population have (now much, much) more time on Earth before those finite resources run out. Similarly, let us finally invent something like a Star Trek replicator, then the problem of ultimately finite resources might fall away as a problem, if that technology somehow proves unlimited (not likely).

Short then of miraculously slaughtering 6.3 billion human beings or relying on a forthcoming magical solution that requires violating some of some of science’s currently most fundamental laws, then within the realm of the currently ethically and technologically feasible, we can (1) emigrate off the planet, or (2) mine necessary resources from our “local” space environment.[6] And this means that any argument or narrative that makes space undesirable (not merely hostile or dangerous) represents a step in the direction of desiring human extinction.

Yes, the issues here remain couched in cosmic terms—we face extinction from far more proximate causes than running out of resources. An argument that we should venture into space because people currently have inadequate resources on the planet falls apart, because we know well enough now that the problem of world hunger (for instance) arises from problems of distribution not production. Similarly, to say that we might solve the problem of catastrophic climate change by migration into space evades the question, although if we continue to “burn down our house in order to keep warm” (as someone described our current “approach” to environmental resources), then it may simply become necessary to skedaddle off our hopelessly ruined ecosystem.

One can identify technocratic and progressivist arguments for exploring space that seem ethically short-sighted. The value I see, for example, in spending money to collect moon rocks in the name of science compares unfavourably to the value of finding ways to not let people needlessly starve to death around everywhere on the planet.[7] So, I would understand the (genuine) necessity of space exploration (either for resources or emigration or both) in ethical terms, as towards the provisioning human needs both “forever” but also in the nearest possible future—precisely because people currently starve around the world. And by “stave” I mean to point not merely to the failure to meet the human need for nutrition but to every elements of the world that prevents all human beings from having their social and biological needs adequately (to say nothing of fully) met.

In Cuaròn’s (2013) Gravity, he resorts to a nonsensical (fantasy) discourse about space in order to tell a particular fable about life on Earth. No one denies that space represents an extremely hostile environment for human life, but similarly places exist on the Earth: does one say of those places, “I hate the deep sea” or “I hate Antarctica?” But not simply to say “I hate space” but to then juxtapose Earth as the place of salvation instead. Finite resources makes this Edenic myth (however fucked up we ever make our environment) misleadingly deceptive and thus dangerous (in the long run and for the sake of those currently not having their needs met on the ground of scarcity).

In this film, the message gets more obnoxious. Here, humanity has been deceived. Living in massive space stations above a now destroyed Earth, they receive messages from a supposedly colonised Rhea (a moon in orbit around Saturn), messages that turn out merely simulations—a lie maintained in order to give humans (living in space stations) hope. In contrast, people on Earth (however they got there, or wherever they live) have found a way to make things grow there again. So, if people would just stop placing their (deceived) hopes on someday emigrating (from a space station) to Rhea, then they might “wake up” and return to Earth.

One of the more wearisome details of the film[8] involves the name of the ship that the main cast travels on: the Kassandra, the figure from Greek mythology with the power of prophecy but also the curse of never being believed—as if “believing” a prophecy guarantees avoiding the disaster, just as the tedious cry of certain kinds of voices to “wake up” seems to place total faith merely in waking up. This, despite the fact that the howler, now awakened, seems to have nothing better to do that how ineffectually—not a very promising program for social change (or avoiding disaster).[9]

This “spirit of Cassandra” informs part of the “attitude” of this film at one level. The prospects of emigration from the planet (whatever the immense difficulties and dangers involved) represent a lie being told to you. And those who know better promise us that we have only to turn our eyes back to the earth (and the Earth) to achieve our salvation.

Science fiction for a very long time and in innumerable narratives have had humans going out into space only to encounter endless varieties of discouragement (usually from preternaturally wise or advanced aliens) to the effect, “Oh humanity, why do you venture into space? You have problems at home that require your more urgent attention.)

I do not object to this pointing out of local (terrestrial) problems; I’ve done it myself in this post. Rather, I object to the false dichotomy of Earth or Space. No one remains forever in a womb—eventually one falls out, gets pushed out, or gets forcibly removed. And no one posits a silly dichotomy like Womb or World (whatever people want to claim about regressive desires).

But certainly that “infantile” desire for regression shows itself in this. In Cuaròn’s Gravity, the Edenic trope comes across heavy-handedly, including what (symbolically) amounts to an incoherent moment when Bullock’s character curls up in a foetal ball (though while still in space).[10] Here, something a bit weirder happens.

On the one hand, I find nothing ambiguous about the Edenic implications of Earth. Clearly, humanity needs to get its ass out of the stars and come home—to a real home, not a simulated paradise. But here comes the more interesting bit—because the simulated paradise gets couched exactly in Edenic terms.

Clearly, the film wants to distinguish between a false Eden and a true Eden, but how can we take that to the bank? An additional problem that the film can’t solve: those who live in the simulation enjoy the simulation. In fact, the protagonists specifically do not destroy those in the simulation; they simply make impossible any communication between “Rhea” and those in space stations above Earth.

Just as the Matrix (the first movie) never really adequately answers—namely, why wouldn’t someone elect to live in the Matrix if you can live all hooked up, as the one character chooses—then what becomes precisely so horrific about living in the Rhea simulation? Barring technological fuck-ups, and the film specifically declare the Rhea simulation perfect, then only to those who live “outside of it” might find it horrific. The problem of living as a brain in a jar involves very little having to do with authenticity and much more to do with “does this brain in a jar really work?” We already live in a defective mechanism that gradually breaks down—give people a perfect simulation, and why we shouldn’t call that Eden becomes very murky, especially when the alternative (as also in the Matrix) involves a degrade and nasty existence compared to the simulation. Ethically, to prefer “reality” to simulation in that context becomes untenable. The (problematic) reality involves the fact that no such simulation exists, as an alternative.

In Stanton’s (2008)[11] cutesy Wall-E, we jarringly encounter no adequate address of this theme when a bunch of (obese and doubtless bone-degraded) humans return to the trash heap of Earth to a chorus of enthusiastic expatiations about rebuilding it. Cargo less dopily, or simply more earnestly, holds out the same kind of “reunion”.

Any narrative that insists that “Earth or Space” (as opposed to “Earth and Space”) provides a legitimate choice should go back first and decide on “Womb or World”.

Narrative Aspects

This film’s nods to Alien seem somewhat essential to its set up. We now all well know the “tense” shots of heroines creeping around inside of spaceship corridors (if we didn’t already know the equivalent images from haunted house movies), but this film also reprises a key (even crucial) gesture from Alien; the captain gets killed off early. However, for Alien—and especially at the time, when people tended not to expect females (even Sigourney Weaver) to supply the actual hero of a film—the death of the captain amplified the film’s tension, because it suggested that, in fact, everyone might die. The putative “hero” of the film had already gotten destroyed by the nemesis, so after that, all narrative gets vanish.

That trope doesn’t work so well anymore—at least, not as deployed here in the same abrupt and off-hand way that Alien does. Here, the film begins with a focus on the female heroine, so the death of the captain does nothing but rob us of the craggy visual presence of the actor. His presence makes me think of Jürgen Prochnow in Wolfgang Petersen‘s (1981)[12] Das Boot or Max von Sydow (sorry Max!) in Lynch’s (1984)[13] Dune,[14] and even more like the (animated) Captain Avatar from Space Battleship Yamato[15] (better known in the US as Star Blazers). We already know that Portmann plays the protagonist; the death only serves to shake up the chain of command on the vessel. And the manipulative moving-shadows-behind-the-heroine gag make the whole “what else is on board the ship with them” tension work effectively enough.

However, the bogie on this flight concerns neither out of control computers nor a savage alien predator, but of course humans.

Maybe something got lost a bit in the translated subtitles, but things got a bit murky toward the end, partly because some of the set up seems missing. Either I missed it, or it wasn’t made clearly enough, that at the outset of the film humanity already no longer lives on Earth but in a giant space station in orbit (or several of them, but we only see one). Meanwhile, along with up to 42 space stations (I say this because the one interstellar space station referred to has the number 42)—I assume this doesn’t offer a wayward Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy joke—humanity has established a colony on Rhea, referring (presumably) to Saturn’s second largest moon, some 1.2 to 1.7 billion miles from Earth.[16] Inhabitants from this colony sometimes send messages home back to the people above Earth, describing the wonderful life on Rhea.

What the “technophobic terrorists” referred to in the synopsis seem to aspire to—as first presented—concerns the destruction of any “progress” toward the further habitation of Rhea. Similarly, researchers have discovered another (more distant, but habitable) planet suitable (one would think) for human colonization. So the technophobes simply think this represents some kind of waste of time—the film never specifies the specific program—and the twist [spoiler alert] comes out that no one lives on Rhea in fact. Rather, a bunch of people in a Matrix-like suspended state inhabit a (collective?) simulation and from that deception unknowingly send back messages of hope to humanity. These people (in their virtual simulation) provide the cargo of the film, but it does not quite become clear why—if the simulation runs already—why this new cargo needs delivering. Another confusion—and I apologise if this seems only to work out my own befuddlement with the plot, but I think it bears on the “message” of the film ultimately—concerns where exactly the ship ends up. Most of the crew believe they have station 42 as a destination, but then it turns out that someone has reprogrammed the computers for Rhea instead. I got the impression that station 42 orbited Rhea, but never mind.

Whatever the muddling or my confusion, it seems that more of this cargo needs delivering somewhere (whether station 42 or Rhea) in order to add more “bodies” to the simulation. The fiction of Rhea requires emigrants but none of them, of course, can actually know where or in what state they exist. Station 42 may indeed orbit Rhea, but no one gets delivered to the surface of the moon; rather, they get stored in station 42. And so, at the end, the protagonist exposes the lie and they blow up the antenna that broadcasts from station 42.

By this, we see the technophobes don’t embody merely dismissible screw-brained Luddites as far as the narrative goes. In fact, the good looks of the security officer inserted into the flight to protect against terrorist attacks too transparently, from the beginning of the film, seems suspiciously like a (secret) member of the rebellion, rather than a security officer (much less an actual terrorist). And exactly this turns out as the case. Some of the confusion in the film results from the fact that the now newly appointed captain (in the wake of the original one) seems not only entirely in the know about the deception of Rhea, but argues for its necessity. Just as a matter of narrative procedure—in a film where we get confronted by revelations about the “real” motivations of the various characters—it becomes an unanswered question whether the original captain himself also knew about the deception of Rhea, or does only the newly appointed captain represent this position? Did “the corporation” dupe the original captain, leaving it to his first-mate to carry the torch of (corporate) deception? Nothing essential in the film seems to hinge on this question, of course, when narrative elements leak out and spray around unexpectedly, it seems sporting for screenwriters and directors to at least note these things and take account of them.


[1] I couldn’t find a bibliographic citation for this film (yet); IMDB listing here.

[2] Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer., Kubrick, S., Clarke, A. C. 1., Dullea, K., Lockwood, G., Sylvester, W., Khachaturi͡an, A. I., Ligeti, G., Strauss, J., Strauss, R., & Warner Home Video (Firm). (2001). 2001, a space odyssey. Digitally restored and remastered ed. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.

[3] Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation., Shusett, R., O’Bannon, D., Carroll, G., Giler, D., Hill, W., Scott, R., Skerritt, T., Weaver, S., Cartwright, V., Stanton, H. D., Hurt, J., Holm, I., Kotto, Y., Vanlint, D., Rawlings, T., Goldsmith, J., Brandywine (Firm)., & Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, I. (2003). Alien. Director’s cut. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

[4] Warner Bros. Pictures (1969- )., Cuarón, A., Cuarón, J., Heyman, D., Bullock, S., Clooney, G., Harris, E., Esperanto Films (Firm)., Heyday Films., & Warner Home Video (Firm). (2014). Gravity. Rental [edition]. Burbank, CA.

[5] New Line Cinema Corporation., Oldman, G., Hurt, W., LeBlanc, M., Rogers, M., Graham, H., Chabert, L., Johnson, J., Hopkins, S., Goldsman, A., Prelude Pictures., & Irwin Allen Productions. (1998). Lost in space. Letterboxed, widescreen version. [S.l.]: New Line Home Video.

[6] Aliens showing up to exterminate us en masse or to provide us with magical technology to solve these problems represent equally undesirable and implausible miraculous/magical solutions to the problem of finite resources.

[7] That money utilized for space exploration adequately addresses the problem of destruction does not follow either, of course. Just in terms of funding, to break off $100 billion four our annual defence budget could solve world hunger and provide a lot of space exploration. At the same time, that the money from space exploration represents an only minor fraction of some total money does not excuse it from acknowledging the fatuousness of its rationales in the face of world starvation, &c.

[8] One can also object that no mission dedicated to something like this one’s would have named its ship this, but this simply points to a cutesy piece of deliberate continuity violation in the film.

[9] More details, if you like (from here): “In Greek mythology, Cassandra (Greek Κασσάνδρα, pronounced [kas̚sándra͜a], also Κασάνδρα), also known as Alexandra or Kassandra, was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy. She had the power of prophecy and the curse of never being believed. A common version of her story is that Apollo gave her the power of prophecy in order to seduce her, but when she refused him, he gave her the curse of never being believed. In an alternate version, she fell asleep in a temple, and snakes licked (or whispered in) her ears so that she was able to hear the future. Snakes as a source of knowledge is a recurring theme in Greek mythology, although sometimes the snake brings understanding of the language of animals rather than an ability to know the future. Cassandra is a figure of both epic tradition and of tragedy”

[10] I say incoherently because—but first. I have no reason to believe Cuaròn thought this through, i.e., his script gives me no reason to think the film makes more of this than simply a “dramatic image”. I mean Bullock’s fetal curl up. In this image, what relationship does “space” have to “womb” then? (I doubt we should take the “space station” in this case as the “womb”). Since usually “earth” denotes “womb” this shifting to the “void” of “space” evokes a lot of anti-woman themes in a variety of ways. And if “space” denotes the place of (actual) incubation, then “I hate space” becomes even less coherent. “Woman” as “void” or “gap” belies well enough the denigration of the total person of woman as creator, and one could not coherently “hate space” if we all, in fact, originate from there. And on and on.

[11] Pixar (Firm)., Stanton, A., Morris, J., Lasseter, J., Docter, P., Reardon, J., Newman, T., Eggleston, R., Schaffer, S., Barillaro, A., Hunter, S. C., Lasky, J., Feinberg, D., Burtt, B., Knight, E., Garlin, J., Willard, F., Ratzenberger, J., Najimy, K., Weaver, S., Walt Disney Pictures., & Walt Disney Home Entertainment (Firm). (2008). WALL-E. Burbank, CA: Walt Disney Home Entertainment.

[12] Petersen, W. (1997). Das Boot : the director’s cut. Burbank, Calif.: Columbia TriStar Home Video.

[13] Universal Studios Home Entertainment (Firm)., Lynch, D., MacLachlan, K., Madsen, V., Ferrer, J., Smithee, A., & Herbert, F. (2006). Dune. Extended ed. Universal City, CA: Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

[14] Which coincidentally has Prochnow in it as well.

[15] The name Yamato can refer both to a Japanese imperial dynasty as well as to a Japanese battleship immortalized by its kamikaze mission.

[16] Depending on where Earth and Saturn stand in relationship to one another.


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