The Cold Equations (1996) — Making an impossible choice in the void of space

“One word: captain’s orders.”

Justin’s rating: What would you do?

Justin’s review: Written by Tom Godwin for Astounding Magazine in 1954, the classic short story “The Cold Equations” captured enough imaginations that it’s been adapted several times already for TV and YouTube. The combination of a tense moral quandary and a relatively small set made this pretty attractive to the SciFi channel, which commissioned the short story as a 1996 made-for-TV movie starring Billy Campbell (The Rocketeer) and the delightfully named Poppy Montgomery (Without a Trace, Unforgettable).

Campbell is John Barton, a space pilot who’s sent on a mission to deliver much-needed medical supplies to a mining colony. He’s sent there in a one-shot ship made out of spun plastic with just enough fuel to get there. The twist comes when he realizes — too late — that a woman named Lee (Montgomery) has stowed away looking for a free ride to go see her brother on the colony. Lee’s weight puts the cheap ship over on its fuel budget, and they’re too far away for retrieval or help.

The orders come down from Barton’s commander: Dump the girl and accomplish the mission.

Unwilling to commit cold-blooded murder but also unwilling to dump the medicine that could save the lives of considerably more than one person, Barton is torn. Campbell plays him a little thick-headed and pragmatic, while Montgomery’s Lee comes at him like a spoiled brat who can occasionally soften up. Lee quickly understands that she’s in a fight for her life, and so the pair try to think of anything they can do to save them both and get the ship to the ground.

I think the bigger question here is if this was a good idea to try to expand to a 90-minute feature film. There’s a reason why the other three adaptations (not including Netflix’s Stowaway, which offers a similar plot) were much, much shorter. The Cold Equations attempts to pad out what is in essence a rather simple (if brutal) decision with unrealistic conversations between these two astronauts and efforts to lighten the ship’s load.

In other words, it’s always stalling without much in the way of development or action. Kind of like a play where the writer needs to keep everyone in a room as long as possible. The two leads fill the time with jokes, a smidge of romance, fights, confessions, and other pointless diversions. At least twice, Barton and Lee get into fistfights, which kind of seems unfair considering that one is twice the weight class of the other.

I was hoping to get a bit of ’90s scifi special effects and sets, but we’re talking about the very bare minimum here, so it’s probably not worth showing up for eye candy either. The Cold Equations isn’t terrible, but it isn’t great either — and that doesn’t cut it when there are other options out there.

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