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The Cold Equations (2003)
Director: Peter Geiger

review by Steven Hampton

Lieutenant John Barton is an ambitious military space pilot who takes on the assignment of an emergency flight in the hope of winning a promotion. He's given a 'disposable' interstellar shuttlecraft with only just enough fuel to reach the destination where a mining colony awaits the urgently needed medical supplies that his little ship is carrying. The weight of cargo and pilot has been measured and the vessel's mission optimised from launch to landing for a one-way journey. There's no backups or redundancy for safety's sake, and everything's been calculated for economy class travel, including planet-fall. The 'problem' that provides this movie with its moral dilemma is the presence onboard of young stowaway Marilyn 'Lee' Cross. The extra weight means that Barton is unable to complete his mission with her as an innocent passenger. Will he eject Lee from the ship? Is there no available option to save her life?

The Cold Equations is a remarkable fusion of hard-SF and space opera based on the classic 1954 story by Tom Godwin, first adapted for the screen by Alan Brennert in 1988 as an episode of The Twilight Zone (first aired during the third season of the TV show's 1980s' revival). It's difficult if not impossible to stretch the essential content of Godwin's short story out to feature length without larding on ghastly sentimentalism. Although this is, perhaps, in keeping with the SF text and the general thrust of Godwin's other genre work, here it has a tendency to defuse narrative tension, and so the drama succumbs to bathos. Furthermore, there are three credited scriptwriters whom foolishly choose to employ the hackneyed cliché of corporate malfeasance as primary cause of the tragedy, sidelining the laws of physics that are so expertly and prominently examined in Godwin's landmark original. Hey, if it isn't broken, don't fix it - okay, guys?

Bill Campbell (The Rocketeer, 1991) tackles the role of pilot Barton, and his distraught struggles to avoid having to commit murder to save his own life, and the lives of the colonists depending upon his mercy flight, are almost convincingly portrayed. Almost, but not totally credible as a man who sees his sense of right and wrong challenged in a manner he can scarcely believe. Lee is played by Poppy Montgomery, from Dead Man On Campus (1998) and TV show Without A Trace, as likeably feisty and determined to survive, when the cruel impact of utterly 'human' circumstances so clearly dictate otherwise, even if she has to kill... In the end, of course, the précis of this tale is so familiar that the supposedly climactic terror and tragedy is lamentably disappointing. A conventional 'wraparound' plot device, concerned with Barton's court martial a year after the event, pointlessly endeavours to add a political dimension (potentially a popular uprising against right-wing schemers) to the storyline, but merely succeeds in appearing as tacked-on and thoroughly superfluous as any other diversion from the established plot of your average screen remake.

Not especially impressive, but worthwhile, and at least it's a pleasure to see a fine example of traditional SF getting such well-intentioned screen treatment.
Cold Equations

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