A viewer experiencing “Cargo” with no expectations might spend the movie’s first few minutes assuming it hails from the “2001” school of near-future odysseys, as lonely astronaut Prahasta (Vikrant Massey) goes about his routine in a brightly-lit vessel while floating through an endless starry night. Instead, the imaginative first feature from Indian writer/director Arati Kadav offers a much stranger concept, one that merges the aesthetics of a low-budget space epic into a clever conception of the afterlife, made all the more intriguing by the way she plays the whole thing straight.
It turns out that Prahasta is actually a “rakshasa,” a type of demon from Hindu mythology that guides recently departed humans through the underworld before recycling their souls and returning them to life. That’s right: “Cargo” actually takes the Grim Reaper into the cosmos, as Kadav endeavors to merge minimalist space opera with supernatural world-building. That unseemly combo doesn’t always click, but she often gets away with it on the basis of ambition alone.
There’s much to absorb about this backdrop, though the basic premise doesn’t take long to settle in. Eons ago, the rakshasas operated under the archaic terms of Hindu lore, but have since evolved into a technologically advanced race that sends a select few operatives off-planet to absorb the newly departed, wipe their memories, and send them back to life with state-of-the-art technology. Prahasta may be a celebrity, but he’s been at this game for 75 years and mostly feels like a cog in the machine, forced into an aimless routine by his employers at the aptly-named Post-Death Transition services. (Its tagline: “Let’s make afterlife better.”)
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Like Sam Rockwell’s woeful lunar miner in “Moon,” Prahasta has settled into his isolation even as he struggles to find much purpose in his routine. His only companion, the paternal mission control operative Nitigya (Nandu Madhav), pipes into the ship through an antiquated TV set to urge Prahasta to get with the changing times and develop a social media presence to entertain his fans. But Prahasta’s a creature of habit, who would prefer to stick to the script — processing new arrivals with his clunky equipment and issuing dry explanations about their situation as if reading an insurance clause.
All of that makes it hard to process the unexpected arrival of new assistant Yuvishka (Shweta Tripathi), a plucky and curious young graduate of the Post-Death Transition school, who admires Prahasta but presses him to consider newer methods. Her energy and idealism are at odds with Prahasta’s rigorous methods, and as the pair spend more time together in isolation, they each begin to reveal their hidden vulnerabilities. The biggest surprise of “Cargo,” over the course of a rather unruly two-hour running time, is the way the story settles into the beats of a familiar workplace dramedy.
Nevertheless, the movie often glides along on a pileup of vignettes involving the various dead clients who pass through the station, from a hectic Indian wedding party to a man dressed up as a mummy from an ill-fated movie shoot. There’s just enough intrigue and inspired deadpan to these encounters for Kadav to hold our attention, even as “Cargo” never musters the emotional chamber piece it seems intent to convey. It often suffers from a peculiar idiosyncratic tone: Not quite funny enough to have fun with its premise nor capable of realizing every aspect of its deeper metaphors, the movie has a tendency to double back on itself, as if attempting to retry the same ideas when they don’t quite connect the first time around.
Yet even when the movie wanders, Kadav displays an impressive sense of scale, while working within visible budgetary constraints. The filmmaker told one interviewer she made the movie for “one-millionth the budget of ‘Gravity,’” but the microbudget approach ends up as an asset, as the cheesy Space Age milieu and lo-fi CGI — the ship looks like a dismantled mechanical pencil — suggest what might happen if an old B-movie slammed into a treatise on Eastern philosophy, and there’s some measure of profundity that comes out of the unusual merging of these dissonant ingredients.
This is the sort of oddball debut that begs for sympathetic eyes open to its intentions even when they don’t always gel. It taps into that grand tradition of stories in which worldly problems continue into the Great Beyond, much like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “After Life” and the recent Sundance breakout “Nine Days.” While “Cargo” stumbles on plot, it excels at vision, and bodes well for the potential of a filmmaker capable of innovating within familiar restraint: The movie starts out like a conventional cinematic journey to the stars, but does such a good job of working within that formula that it manages to sneak into fresh terrain with unshakable ingenuity.
“Cargo” was set to premiere in the Global section of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.