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Archive for September 24th, 2010

Cargo (2009)

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Your average woman of tomorrow will look at a spaceship and see something akin to a passenger liner or a freight train. Your average director of today looks at a spaceship and sees something akin to a haunted house. You can see why as it is a tried and tested formula: put ten little Indians in a metal box, chop ’em up, in space no one can hear you scream. Cargo, a Swiss SF film directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter, tries to move beyond this but keeps being drawn back to the utility of having someone jump out of a cupboard to provide tension. The result is a curious hybrid of Sunshine and Moon with all the strengths and weaknesses that suggests.

Which is not to say that those are the only two films it resembles. Dr Laura Portmann (Anna-Katharina Schwabroh) takes a job on a cargo ship, the Kassandra, to secure a fat paycheck which will allow her to join her sister on the idyllic colony world Rhea. The Kassandra itself is pretty much the Nostromo, right down to a pair of engineers (Michael Finger and Claude-Oliver Rudolph ) in the Yaphet Kotto/Harry Dean Stanton mold. The regular crew is joined a security officer, Lt. Decker (Martin Rapold), who initially appears to be taking the role of Ash as company man. He also acts as a sort of political commissar which is a reminder that dramas set on spaceships most closely resemble dramas set on submarines.

The ship sets off on its four year voyage and the crew enter cryosleep (a nicely realised version of this old standby). Three and a half years later Portmann is woken up, alone, for her shift. Engler and Etter capture the loneliness and introspection of self-enforced solitary confinement in a similar way to Duncan Jones’s Moon. But, of course, Portmann is not really alone. Dun dun duuunn! The rest of the crew are quickly awoken and things unravel from there as hidden motives boil to the surface.

The first image we see in Cargo is of a woman walking through a vast, sunlit cornfield. The camera pulls back and we see that this is, in fact, advert for Rhea being played on a huge screen. In other words, the first image we see in the film is a lie. This sets up the fact that Cargo is a film about secrets and lies. what is strange is how quick it is to give those secrets away.

Given that the Earth is blasted and barren and the remenants of humanity are crowded into orbital habitats we are more than a little suspicious of the paradise of Rhea where everyone has a schloss and two perfect children. The twist relating to this is telegraphed surprisingly early on when Portmann discovers what the cargo they are carrying actually is. Similarly Decker almost immediately abandons any pretense of being the baddie to become a standard leading man; this could have been a case of undercutting our expectations but the reversal is executed so quickly as to not be a reversal at all. That he embarks on an equally rushed romance with Portmann signals a further reliance on generic convention.

Four writers are credited – Engler, Arnold Bucher, Patrik Steinmann and Thilo Röscheisen – and I wonder if this is a case of a horse designed by committee. Cargo does keep some cards close to its chest but even these it discards abruptly. This echoes the pace of the film which tends to alternate between the frantic and the placid with little consistency. Plot holes and idiotic expedency abounds. My favourite example being Portmann as ship’s physician telling Decker to sling a crew member who has fallen several stories over his shoulder and run back to the medical bay. Proper ideas, interesting design and well-composed shots are strung at random along the thread of the film but, as in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine in-between them is dross. Where Engler and Etter have succeed most is in establishing a tone of emotional and intellectual seriousness which, even when they are not actually present on screen, allows the viewer to navigate their absence.

Cargo came out last year so it has missed its chance at the Hugos but it is certainly better than 60% of the shortlist. I’m not sure I can agree with Ian Sales that it is the SF DVD of 2010 though. But that did get me thinking. What are the SF films of 2010? My mind is a total blank apart from Inception (and I would be amazed if it didn’t win the Hugo next year).

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 13:28

Posted in films, sf

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‘Surface Tension’ by James Blish

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I’ve read this before, right? Or have I just read Stephen Baxter’s version? He did one, right?

Anyway, this is a stone cold classic, both of science fiction and hard SF. A small group of colonists crash land on a planet with is almost entirely covered in water. They know they are going to die, they take this in their stride and they seed the planet with a microscopic version of humanity. Many years later this new form of humanity reaches for the stars.

The hard SF path of heroic endeavour is all here: the universe is a harsh, unforgiving vacuum; up by his bootstraps; per ardua ad astra; etc, etc. ‘Surface Tension’ also reconfigures the familar (the story takes place in a small puddle) into the utterly alien. A joy to read and larded with enough of Blish’s professional background in microbiology to skim of any holes in the plausibility of the scenario.

Quality: ****
Hardness: ****

Written by Martin

24 September 2010 at 10:21