The Cold Equations (1996) poster

The Cold Equations (1996)


USA/Canada. 1996.


Director – Peter Geiger, Screenplay – Stephen Berger, Peter Geiger & Norman Plotkin, Based on the Short Story by Tom Godwin, Producer – Yoram Barzilai, Photography – Christopher Walling, Music – Paul Rabjohns, Visual Effects – Fantasy II Film Effects (Supervisor – Gene Warren Jr), Special Effects – Performance World FX (Supervisor – G. Bruno Stempel), Production Design – Robert de Vico. Production Company – USA Pictures/Alliance Communications Corporation/Chanticleer Films.


Bill Campbell (Lieutenant John Barton), Poppy Montgomery (Marilyn ‘Lee’ Cross), Daniel Roebuck (Mitch), William R. Moses (Adrian Cross)


An enquiry is held to pass judgment on the actions of Lieutenant John Barton. Barton had volunteered to pilot a lightweight spaceship to deliver vitally needed medical supplies to the colony planet LC10. Everything aboard the ship was stripped to a minimum to conserve weight and fuel. However, after getting underway Barton discovered that a girl, Marilyn ‘Lee’ Cross, had stowed away on board, wanting to travel to visit her brother, a miner on LC10. Her presence there skewed the ship’s weight payload, meaning that with her added mass the ship would not make it to its destination. The only choice that Barton was left with was to eject her out of the airlock.

Tom Godwin’s short story The Cold Equations (1954), originally published in Astounding magazine, is a genuine science-fiction classic. The story concerns a pilot on an emergency mission to deliver desperately needed medical supplies to a colony world. The ship he is piloting has been exactingly calculated with just enough fuel and mass for the journey there, only for him to then discover a teenage girl who had stowed away on board, leaving him to have to reconcile the ‘cold equations’ that necessitate that she must be ejected out the airlock for the sake of the mission’s success because her weight skews the ship’s payload.

The story had previously been adapted to the screen twice before as episodes of the science-fiction anthology series’ Out of This World (1965-71) and The Twilight Zone (1985-9). This Canadian-American production, which was aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, undertakes the ambitious idea of making a feature-length film out of the short story. There was also the later Stowaway (2021), which moved the basic concept into the era of the NASA space mission.

Unfortunately The Cold Equations is a story that seems rather resistant to the idea of being turned into a feature-length film. For one, the short story is a two person drama. For two, it is set on a spaceship where everything has been stripped to absolute minimum in terms of weight and has no excess room. Going by the dictates of story, one would imagine that the sets would be cramped and exceedingly confined. Both of these are restrictions that seem contrary to the principles that film operates on, which tend to favour multiple people stories and reasonable room to move the camera around.

With these constraints taken into account, The Cold Equations does a fair job of keeping to the essence of the story. The film  unnecessarily adds some additional characters, although the main drama still focuses on the two people. The shipboard sets are cinematically sizeable yet small enough not to be totally unbelievable for the story’s requirements.

That said, the story still feels awkwardly padded – the other cast members present are not needed and the film has to manufacture extra crises, even a micro-romance, in order to spin the story out to feature length. The Cold Equations is really a story that is far more suited to being told at half-hour length with only two actors on a single set – indeed its length and economy of setting is ideal for the half-hour tv anthology episode.

Director Peter Geiger shoots the film with a low-key manneredness and the best moments come in the character exchanges – indeed, the film could almost be considered a study in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of confrontation of death. The final ejection of Poppy Montgomery out the airlock is quite heart-rending, although the film oddly never chooses to show her being ejected or even Bill Campbell pushing the button. Bill Campbell gives a good serious performance.

If this had been all there was, The Cold Equations could have worked quite modestly. Unfortunately the film tacks an ending onto the story that completely wrecks it. The original story hinged on a dilemma where the pilot had to make a decision about keeping the girl alive or else ditching the mission that carried vitally needed medicines that would save the lives of colonists. It’s a story that demonstrates the brutal kinds of pragmatism that must sometimes be made for the greater good. However, the film adds an absurd twist to this – one where the medicine is revealed not to be a vitally needed vaccine at all but a drug that will allow the company to exploit miners in dangerous working conditions – shades of Outland (1981).

Thus the story now goes from being about a pilot having to make merciless but necessary decisions for the greater good to a sentimental tragedy about an innocent being sacrificed for the sake of a corrupt corporation’s purposes. It is something that warps the shock brutality of the original ending to replace it with tub-beating against the evils of corporations. The last scene of the film with the guards wanting to refuse to take Bill Campbell away but he nobly allowing himself to be taken has a faux sentimentality that is completely laughable.

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