The Cold Equations

A movie directed by Peter Geiger

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An Underrated Science Fiction Remake

  • Dec 18, 2009
I had the advantage of several positive reviews going into this purchase and having just completed the film moments ago, feel as though the praise generally surrounding The Cold Equations actually falls short of the greatness contained within.

To begin this review, let's get the most asked question out of the way immediately. The title of the film refers to the notion that "the cold equations" of physics are inalterable by human beings regardless of how badly we might want to bend the rules.

Produced presumably on a made-for-television budget back in 1996 by Alliance Atlantis in association with Chanticleer Films, The Cold Equations earned DVD release in 2003 through Echo Bridge Entertainment. Though the release is Not Rated, it contains absolutely no suggestive material, foul language, or gore. There is a bit of violent undertone throughout though none of the themes are actually shown. Runtime comes in at 93 minutes and the DVD contains absolutely no extras (save for the ability to select individual chapters from which to view).

Surprisingly, this version of the film happens to be the third and most recent television adaptation of the prose: First as part of the 1962 British anthology series Out of This World; then as part of the 1985-1989 revival of The Twilight Zone and finally again as this, a 1996 made-for-TV movie on the Sci-Fi Channel.

The story, based fairly closely to Tom Godwin's 1954 short story of the same name, tells of a space military pilot named John Barton (played by Bill Campbell perhaps best known for his leading role in The Rocketeer) who, in effort of potential rank-advancement, volunteers for an assignment to deliver medication to the distant mining planet of Woden.

Once the specifics of his cargo are meticulously calculated, his disposable one-way vessel is dropped off out of hyperspace for its voyage into deep space. Immediately after being deposited, the ship's navigational computer alerts John to an anomaly (in this case additional onboard mass) that threatens to upset the original calculations.

He discovers a young female stowaway on board (played by Poppy Montgomery), a colonist hoping to meet up with her brother who happens to be stationed on the mining facility in question. The gravity (no pun intended) of the situation is that due to fuel constraints, the ship simply isn't capable of reaching its destination with the additional life form on board but the corporation funding the shipment isn't about to waste precious money and time to circle back. John is ordered to jettison the girl immediately so that his mission can be fulfilled but discovers that taking another human's life is easier said than done, even when it is a direct order from the captain of his ship.

Of all of the live-action incarnations of the story, this one is credited as possibly receiving the most criticism on account of alterations made to the original premise.

If I may cut to the chase, this film would easily classify as science fiction, intergalactic exploration, or even space opera on some levels but at its core this is a tale of human-driven drama in the strictest sense of the concept.

The struggle to survive is brilliantly used as the catalyst throughout as there are absolutely no decisions that can be made without consequence. The film fuses a courtroom setting (at the trial proceeding the events) with the hopelessness the lead characters found themselves in flawlessly.

Waste not a moment's thought in suspecting a made-for-tv budget as the weak link of a genre that typically relies upon ultra-pricey visual overload, as The Cold Equations does far more with its limited sets than almost any recent big budget "blockbuster" (no insult directly to Michael Bay intended).

The few exterior shots and space settings that are sprinkled throughout the film are all solid, clean, and certainly get the point across. A majority of the story centers on the small escape-pod-like atmosphere of the spacecraft the lead characters find themselves trapped upon complete with a genuine sense of claustrophobia floating cities like the Starship Enterprise typically lack.

Without relying upon special effects wizardry, elaborate sets, or pretty locations, The Cold Equations paints a tale from desperation, a hopeless situation, and acting that harkens back to a time when film was used as a medium to tell a meaningful story. The acting performance from Bill Campbell (who co-executive produced the piece) and Poppy Montgomery is just spot-on throughout. A film like this would simply fail on every level if the main players weren't able to portray the desperation and tension of the situation in a believable manner. Fortunately, they were up to the task. Perhaps even more noteworthy are the performances of the secondary cast members from the smug attorney recapping the events, to the captain of the ship, to the emotionally battered miner whose own sister caused all of the trouble.

I'll be honest, the ending isn't typical "happily ever after" trite so common in motion pictures either. There is slight deviation from the short story here, as the legalities resulting from the actions that took place in the ship aren't touched upon in the original material. The good news is that integrating such themes in the film rendition only strengthens the ramifications of the choices made. The film goes to great lengths to establish an emotional link and as much as we would all love for the good guys to come out on top in the end, there is a consistency here that is eerily reminiscent of reality.

In all, it's tough not to strongly recommend this DVD as it succeeds on all of the levels that make a motion picture memorable. The lack of action may turn off some viewers and the lack of eye candy others, but beyond such cheap thrills exists the potential for so much more from a film. The Cold Equations taps deep into this area and rewards its viewer with an enjoyable (if emotionally taxing) rendition of classic science fiction writing done correctly.

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November 28, 2011
sweet write up, man.
About the reviewer
Jason Rider (AKA OneNeo on is the author of the successful children's fantasy novel series The Uncommon Adventures of Tucker O'Doyle from Bellissima Publishing.      … more
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About this movie


Studio: Platinum Disc Llc Release Date: 02/28/2006 Run time: 93 minutes
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Director: Peter Geiger
DVD Release Date: August 12, 2003
Runtime: 92 minutes
Studio: Platinum Disc
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