Review: Alien Cargo (1999)

Sci-fi channel tends to try running several movies with similar themes in a row. In this case Alien Apocalypse was the cross-over between Bruce Campbell movies and alien-related movies. Alien Cargo rode on it’s heels and was, relatively speaking, a breath of fresh air.

In spite of Loki’s rave (or maybe anti-rave?) reviews I have never seen Space Truckers. But based on the description it seems like Alien Cargo attempted the same genre (ie. long haul space cargo workers films) and succeeded at least modestly in every way that Space Truckers failed.

Synopsis: (Anyone who doesn’t want pretty detailed spoilers should skip to Analysis.) A crew of 10 people, including the virile Chris McNiel (Jason London) and attractive Theta Kaplan (Missy Crider), work shifts on an interplanetary cargo vessel. Their ship takes a months long journey between different points within the solar system. To conserve on resources (and more importantly corporate expenses) only two people are conscious at a time manning the ship, the rest remain in “hyper-sleep” (your basic stasis chamber).

There’s some flash-backing and flash-forwarding to establish the crux of the story. But basically as the movie starts the ship and it’s crew have picked up some cargo of the non-alien variety (cobalt ore I think) and started their journey back across the solar system. This should take them more than 2 months, but less than a year. In theory two guys will be on duty and wake up the next two people a couple months into the voyage.

Chris and Theta are the second watch. As it also turns out they are lovers, a fact that happens to be against one of the company policies which boils down to “don’t screw fellow employees”. They wake up and discover the folks who should’ve woken them up have killed each other. Automatic computer systems should also have woken Chris and Theta up earlier, but to save money the code had been updated at their last turn-around to avoid false awakenings. The upshot being that instead of waking up after two months they wake up after something like a year to find that the ship is way off course and very low on fuel.

They also discover that their dead colleagues have blue stuff in their veins instead of normal blood. Upon analysis they discover that some micro-organism has infected these co-workers. They also discover that their co-workers discovered a piece of “space junk” (apparently an old Earth probe) and brought it in for salvage part way through the voyage. When approached the probe gives off some weird visually distorting scan, obviously beyond Earth technology of it’s era (or maybe any era).

Over time Chris and Theta start gradually getting on each other’s nerves more and more.

They manage to contact a ship that’s in the area (a scientific station surveying an comet) and after some difficulties arrange a rescue.

Chris and Theta then start trying to kill each other. Theta flees to the cargo hold and the heating pack on her suit runs out. About that time she gets a blue nosebleed and starts becoming rational again. She realizes she’s been infected as were her dead co-workers, and that cold inhibits the organism. Through a more complicated means she treats Chris.

They figure out that they can’t go the the rescue ship and risk spreading the disease. But they save the remaining six people in hyper-sleep, who haven’t been infected, by sling-shotting their hyper-sleep chambers over to the rescue ship.

Once the hyper-sleepers are safely on the other ship Chris and Theta are left alone on the cargo ship. So that there’s a record for civilization to analyze they go back to the probe and take it apart transmitting footage of the process. They discover that there’s some sort of blue-goo filled lava lamp inside. There’s some bizarre speculation as to how this came to pass and what it means.

Then as the rescue ship leaves Chris turns on some biohazard warning beacons. Then he holds Theta lovingly in his arms and together they stare out the ship’s rear window waiting for the life support system to give out so they can die together.

Note: It might not seem like it, but the above ramble is actually a significantly simplified version of the events that actually take place.

Analysis: This was pretty obviously a made-for-TV movie, probably put out by the Sci-Fi channel some years before and shown now in re-run. However, watching this film right after Alien Apocalypse I saw it in a totally different light. To use Star Wars as an analogy: Alien Cargo is to Alien Apocalypse as Return of the Jedi is to The Phantom Menace.

But even viewed through the perspective of a couple weeks reflection I still feel that Alien Cargo is one of the better one-shot, made-for-TV movies I’ve seen come out of the Sci-Fi channel.

Maybe some of the aspects of the scenario had a little bit of a deux ex machina quality. But the movie seemed no more contrived than a typical episode of your favorite TV series. In fact, unless your favorite series happens to be “The Nightly Business Report” or “The Civil War” by Ken Burns, Alien Cargo may well be less contrived.

There were a few little things I questioned the plausibility of. For one example their space suits were basically just quilted coveralls that zipped up in the front with helmets that might have been hermetically sealed if you sort of squinted or weren’t being too critical or didn’t know what the term “hermetically sealed” meant.

Also, it did have spots that begged the viewer to scream, “Why didn’t (he/she) just (mention that to the other person/get around to that obvious detail earlier)!?” But for the most part these were kind of justified later on through character dialogue (again, if you weren’t specifically looking out for reasons to condemn them).

Even given these things though, I thought the movie did a lot with what they had and pulled it off really well. Unlike some made-for-TV movies (especially those natural disaster ones) the action in this movie moved relatively quickly, containing neither boring tangential or unexpositive sequences, nor prolonged bouts of unnecessary character developing dialogue. Not to say that long tone-setting scenes and dialogue can’t be fine, but when stuck in an action thriller they just seem arduous. The story also had a sort of stark “The Cold Equations” feel in spots and, especially at the end, was bittersweet without being cloying.

Also, the acting, sets, props and special effects, while nothing dazzlingly impressive, were more than sufficient in most cases to reasonably suspend my disbelief. They were certainly more than adequate to get across the details of the setting and the unfolding plot. I also liked that the props and special effects tended to support the story, rather than being the main focus and selling point of the film.

As compared with other (presumably higher budget) movies in the genre Alien Cargo definitely holds it’s ground. I’d say it’s at least on par with Event Horizon (one of She Dragon and Loki’s perennial favorites) and a cut above Supernova (A movie whose only distinction is a poorly rendered free-fall sex scene).

On a related tangent: The tag line for Supernova, “All Hell is about to break loose”, might have been better suited to Event Horizon.

In all I’d give Alien Cargo something like 3 or 3.5 out of 5 stars. If they’d just fixed one or two of the issues I mentioned I’d probably have even bumped it up to a full 4 out of 5.

Honestly, if you’ve got not out cultivating agapic love, experiencing the wonders of nature, or catching some much needed sleep, then you could do much worse than watching this movie.

About Peter

This guy lives in Boston MA with his beloved wife and two kids. You can get some idea of his likes and dislikes from posts on this website or elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “Review: Alien Cargo (1999)

  1. Hey dude, Redneck Zombies is one of Salisbury’s own homegrown. One of the guys who refereed my wrestling matches in high-school was in that. I won’t list his name, because I asked him about it once, and he said, “Don’t ever tell anybody you saw me in that.” So yeah, in a nutshell, it was pretty atrocious.

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