What one really wants form a film festival is to be surprised, and the AFI fest did a pretty good job on Friday night, with a midnight screening of Switzerland’s first science-fiction film, Cargo.

As with Johnson’s walking dog, the surprise is that it is done at all. An immensely ambitious undertaking, set almost entirely in deep space, on a long-haul cargo ship, the film took nine years to make; but the time and care spent to make it show right there on the screen in the incredibly impressive digital environment and highly-detailed production design. Occasionally an effect doesn’t come off (usually the deep space green screen when human figures are involved) but for the most part the intricacy of the giant space stations and vessels, their movement and the hard light of deep space are rendered in an astonishingly accomplished and well-imagined manner that bears valid comparison with similar features in 2001. Would that the substance of the film was so sophisticated.

Laura, a young female medic is on a four-year cargo flight whilst the crew are in cryo-sleep. But maybe she’s not alone.. The labyrinthine space ship offers several dramatic settings, from the giant cargo-container hold, to the pretty cool cryo-baths, and even a basement-type area dripping with water (why?). Alien and Bladerunner loom large in the look of lived-in-future interiors and in the synthy score; Aliens contributes a girl child, barely used; and a Matrix set-up underpins the whole plot, such as it is, with a dash of intergalactic eco-terrorism.

Even if not terribly original, it’s still an interesting concept, the choice between grubby reality and a perfect, if artificial world, but it’s  so little explored that Laura’s final decision is borderline incomprehensible. And for all the excellence of the space-ship’s design, the geography between different areas is almost completely ignored, and even in a single location frequently muddled; occasionally this created a useful sense of disorientation, but more frequently it is distractingly vague.

Likewise, bursts of action are continually undermined by mistimed edits and spatial confusion, and tension is consistently cut short in the same way – there turns out not to be some monster hiding in the ship, and when the stowaway is discovered, a hugely fertile possible direction for the film to explore is immediately cut off, as though a sub-plot had been brutally excised at the last moment. And smothering it all is the overbearing heard-it-before synth score, part of a careful but over-emphatic sound design of standard-issue metallic clanks and rumbles. Mediocrity of script, direction, editing and sound are pretty fatal to any movie, but the remarkable backdrop in Cargo maintains enough good faith to see the viewer through to the (ridiculous) ending, and the immense hard work that went into the incredibly impressive digital design of the film incline one to a certain leniency of judgment. But basically, as the sort of entertaining yet thoughtful sci-fi film it would like to be, it’s just not very good.

Rating: 6.83/10