Cargo Netflix Movie Review: Clever, original and inventive foray into spaceship sci-fi
Rhea Srivastava -
What is the story about?
Debutante director Arati Kadav’s Cargo is unprecedented in many ways - firstly, it has no human elements for an Indian sci-fi film. And then it uniquely combines the fascinating and immersive world of folklore with the kitsch of B-movie aesthetics that we usually see in western interpretations of the truly modern genre. Before one delves into the positives (and negatives) of the film itself, it is important to acknowledge the scope and execution of the vision of a young filmmaker who combined her love for myth and science and spent years building a world which is so wonderfully weird that it only has the potential to grow further.
Welcome aboard Pushpak 634A, which is no ordinary spaceship. Amidst its dated technology is a demon named Prahastha (Vikrant Massey), who now for centuries has been responsible for many reincarnations within a not-so-distant system where instead of them stealing human souls, demons process the transition of spirits from one life to another. Prahastha has a celebrity status amongst the humans and demons on Earth for his enduring and professional stint aboard the Pushpak. When a new assistant Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi), a demon who possesses healing powers, is brought aboard by their ground control officer Nitigya (Nandu Madhav), Prahastha has to come to terms with sharing a space which has been solely his for centuries, and perhaps with the idea that he may be becoming redundant and it’s time to retire.
The strength of Cargo lies in the fact that in spite of its bizarre world and the fact that the filmmaker is perfectly aware that we are in on the joke, the story still plays out in the most straight-faced way possible. Prahastha is a post-modern Yamdoot without an ounce of remorse or emotion for the work he does. Running gags include the entry of a new soul and the responsibility of the demon on the spaceship to clear out their memories and destroy their Earthly belongings as if to separate their soul from their body completely for reincarnation. We are also given a small insight into their very last moments as living beings and perhaps why they are so attached to what they bring with them (most seem to be in quite a shock and would like to call a loved one as a last wish). It is an interesting aspect of a human personality to not delve into too deeply. For we are already aware that humans are, for the most part, extremely unpredictable, emotional, and complex creatures. Instead, Kadav chooses to concentrate on the demons of her story… who in spite of being traditionally stereotyped as unloving, evil, and stoic, is just as complex in this futuristic world. When most writers and filmmakers view humans transitioning into robots into the future, this is not the future that Cargo envisions.
The first few minutes of the film are devoted to showing Prahastha’s factory-like workplace, but the pacing truly changes when Yuvishka arrives. She is vivacious, chirpy, and curious, and the perfect foil to his apathetic nature. As the two spend more time together in the ship, their relationship grows from the subtle possibility of a romance to a fun companionship. Perhaps their most important dynamic, however, is that of two people who have different approaches to the same responsibility, and they acknowledge the pros and cons in either way. Of course, eventually, Yuvishka’s presence reminds Prahastha of all the beautiful human elements that he has left behind on Earth, but this is not without its humour. She is constantly updating her social media, much to the chagrin of an old person who basically rolls their eyes at a millennial. Nitigya also tries to convince Prahastha to get on with it and connect to his ‘fans,’ but the latter is too rigid in the way he prefers to follow the company’s branding and read out the rules of the transition to dead souls in the most lifeless way ever.
In spite of immense attention to detail in creating this world, full of funny clap-backs to the perils of modern living, Cargo, however, relies heavily on vignettes relating to these small elements - the fact that Prahastha struggles with old clunky equipment, the video calls to Earth through an old TV, every new soul entrant having a unique personality and sometimes even dying in the most oddball way, and finally, Yuvishka and Prahastha’s polar opposite ideologies. Somewhere, the larger story of Cargo which ought to be its emotional core gets lost - the fact that the demon who cleanses humans of their baggage has some of his own, and the new girl with bright eyes and a beaming future who comes face-to-face with reality and starts losing her spunk. It is evident that almost every scene in the film has been written like an overindulgent metaphor when it could be handled with much subtlety. This repetition of gags is also the reason why the film seems slower in spite of a short runtime.
Music & Other Departments
Almost throughout Cargo, at least one of the characters is performing an activity that involves a futuristic element of the ship. This, while not necessary to the plot, still shows how much effort has gone into creating this world with a rather modest budget. Production designer Mayur Sharma opts for a non-derivative but nostalgic-style environment which is totally sweet and fun. The fact that the makers know their limitations and don’t take their own material too seriously, instead choosing to focus on the whimsy, makes the film special.
Cargo is at the tipping point of having all the elements of an excellent oddball sci-fi web series which would be a first in India. It already has the whimsy of a world which has the cheesy small-budget look and effect with subliminally clever ideas about mortality, attachment, and ethics, as well as a rich and rooted history of folklore, to keep it going for many seasons. The fact that the filmmaker is able to provide profundity with some level of humour while displaying such a blithely original visual aesthetic is good enough reason to watch the film.
Unfortunately, the film wanders far too much in its second half relying heavily on smaller gags to evoke laughter, when it should have been concentrating on building the film as a workplace dramedy where every employee is dispensable. There are a lot of ideas being worked into Cargo and they don’t always come together in the best way.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes! I am drawn to all the ideas in Arati Kadav’s mind and want to see them come together more seamlessly in a series or something.
Do I recommend it?
For sheer innovation and originality, the film deserves a watch. You can hope that there is more to hold on to than just the story in the future.