The Cold Equations was produced by the Sci-Fi Channel back when it had a dignified name and tried to create actual content instead of Sharknado. It's a fairly straightforward re-telling of the classic '50s short story on which it's based, with everything you'd expect from a '90s sci-fi cheapie: uneven acting that ranges from bland to atrocious, shockingly cheap sets and costumes, even cheaper special effects that manage to be embarrassing despite appearing for upwards of 1 minute total of the 93-minute running time, and an evil corporation doing evil things for money, and also to be evil. All very routine, except for that character I mentioned. We'll get to that.
The short story is an effective little yarn, written by a fellow named Tom Godwin in 1954, very short and very direct. A man is delivering a supply of desperately needed medical supplies to an off-world colony in a spaceship carrying precisely the amount of fuel it needs to reach its destination. He discovers a girl named Marilyn who stowed away in an attempt to visit her brother in the colony. Stowing away is illegal because of the whole no-spare-fuel thing and, since carrying extra weight means death for all aboard, the penalty is ejection into space (though the government neglected to explain that last part, meaning the poor girl thinks she's only in for a fine or a brief stint in jail). So our man Barton is ordered to dump the bitch toot-sweet, not just to save his own hide but also to save the millions of colonists soon to die of whatever disease it is they have. Once she recognizes the gravity of her situation, Marilyn is permitted to speak briefly with her brother on the wireless and then willingly enters the airlock.
Now, some people hate the story because of how contrived the situation is. It's bad engineering not to have any margin for error, and it's pretty ridiculous that the government wouldn't make it clear that the punishment for stowing away is death. But these kinds of criticisms miss the point; the plots of a lot of short stories, if you take a few moments to think about them, don't really hold up. Generally short stories quickly limn a set-up and then deliver some sort of emotionally shocking conclusion. The gut impact is the important part. Think of "A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar..." type jokes. Why are they there? Who cares. The set-up is just there to get you to the punchline.
Viewed that way, "The Cold Equations" can work on a number of levels. You could see it as a meditation on the futility of human action, its downbeat conclusion a rejection of the old "Damn it, we'll find a way!" kind of story that always has the main characters finding a solution just in time. You could look at it as a rebuttal to the notion that technology will inevitably overcome any problem nature throws at us *coughclimatechangecough*. Or maybe it's a comment on how people (Barton and Marilyn), no matter how competent, are at the mercy of others' incompetence (the engineers who designed and built the spacecraft) or bureaucratic corruption and negligence (the decision-maker who okay'd the ship's minimalist design). Or perhaps it's a story of human morality--one person sacrificing herself to save countless others. Or of responsibility--that your actions may have unintended consequences, and you just have to deal. Or a number of other interpretations I haven't thought of.
What it wasn't was the story of a horrible selfish bitch who keeps your eyes glued to the screen in hopes of relishing her slow and painful death.
As noted, the movie follows the story, though they have to stretch it to feature length by adding in a movie dystopia (somehow spaceship travel runs entirely on the backs of a vague exploited underclass, and the smallest violation of any law for any reason is harshly punished), a corporate greed subplot (it turns out the medical supplies are in fact a vaccine to prevent a disease the colonists haven't got yet), and, yes, a goddamn love story. Apparently if a film doesn't feature somewhat attractive people sucking face and declaring their love and willingness to die for each other--despite the fact that they've known each other for a grand total of about two hours--then we cretinous imbeciles in the audience will scratch our thick monkey craniums and change the channel. All this I expected (like the love story), or at least wasn't surprised to find (once it became clear the government/corporation was eeeevil, I suspected the medical supplies would turn out to be bogus). What really torpedoes the movie is the character of the girl, inexplicably named Lee in the movie.
Upon being told that her actions have doomed not only Barton but the colonists (including her own brother, let's not forget), Lee's response is to flatly refuse to leave and to berate Barton for wanting to murder her. Now, this might be an understandable initial response, but here's the thing: She does this for the entire movie. She demands that Barton instead lighten the ship's load enough to make up for her 108 extra pounds. (You weigh a little more than a 108.) Barton makes clear that The Company built the ship without any unnecessary weight to save on cost, since it's a disposable vehicle for a one-way trip, so there's nothing to jettison. (Why the company would care about costs, given that it has no competitors and also serves as a totalitarian government, is naturally left unexplained.) In fact, in the pre-flight checkout, Barton was 2 pounds over weight because he was carrying a portable music player, which he was required to leave behind. Lee then suggests ditching his cargo, prompting Barton to tell her what he's carrying. Once she understands the cargo is medical supplies that must be delivered in order to save an entire colony of people (again, including her brother), Lee attacks Barton and attempts to jettison the supplies to save her own ass.
Now, I was already totally fine with spacing this bitch in the first place because she's so goddamned annoying, but really, we're now beyond the pale. What the makers of this film don't seem to understand (and neither do the morons on the IMDb, who gave this piece of shit decent reviews and particularly loved the pluckiness of the female lead and the "romance" of it all) is that Lee is the villain here. In any decent action movie, science fiction or no, the person fucking over the innocent to save his own hide is the bad guy, and the hero fights against that person. Remember in Aliens when Burke locks himself in another room and refuses to let the other characters in just to save himself? Remember what happens? Burke escapes LV-426 while the other characters die horribly, right? He flies home sipping caviar while the credits roll?
Oh that's right, he gets an alien proboscis through the fucking face because that movie didn't suck.
This movie, on the other hand, continually tries to get us to sympathize with Lee. She's plucky, you see, so she starts tearing the ship apart to find extra weight to throw out, while Barton stands there and doesn't grease her stupid ass. Turns out there's a shit-ton of extra weight that can safely be thrown out of this ship built without any unnecessary parts in order to minimize weight and cost for its one-way trip. This includes a first-aid kit the size of a goddamn suitcase and the insulation that keeps the occupant of the ship warm. The latter is torn off of every wall and thrown out with absolutely no adverse effects. Okay, I'm being totally unfair. Lee at one point does say she feels a bit chilly and rubs her arms a little. Why yes, she is dressed solely in a "sexy" tank top while Barton's in a full-body space suit, so I guess the corporation that built this ship without any unnecessary parts in order to minimize weight and cost for its one-way trip wanted to make sure under-dressed "hot" female stowaways would be nice and warm in the few minutes they're on the ship before they get blasted out of the fucking airlock for breaking the law. Those corporate bastards, always concerned about the bottom line.
There's also enough food for two people, even though the trip takes three hours tops. You don't get fucking peanuts on a budget airline for a three-hour trip, yet this one-person spacecraft built without any unnecessary parts in order to minimize weight and cost for its one-way trip has full meals! For two! And there's a functioning space toilet. For a trip lasting upwards of 180 minutes. I guess the Department of Defense contracted this thing.
Lee finds enough stuff to toss to offset half of her weight (good thing she knows moar about the ship than Barton, who said there was nothing they could afford to lose--what a dope!). Man, Barton ought to be pissed that he wasn't allowed to bring his two-pound music player earlier. But now they're really out of stuff to drop (yes, really for reals this time), after Barton again rejects her demand that he dump the supplies. About this point I started to fantasize about Laura Roslin showing up on the ship, whispering sweetly to Lee that everything will be okay, and then airlocking the bitch without a second thought. Alas, Mary McDonnell didn't feel moved to descend from Mount Olympus and save this poor sinner, and I began to panic at the thought of there being 45 more minutes of this crap left to go. Our two zeroes have a heart to heart, where she tries to go all I'm a member of the exploited underclass, this is your fault (lolwut), why don't you buck the system and defy your orders (and thereby ensure both our deaths, though she doesn't say that part), yadda yadda. Then she tries to choke him to death with her bootlace.
You know, nothing makes me fall in love with a woman faster than having her attempt to strangle me from behind with an old shoelace. "At the moment my vision began to fade out and I felt my major organs shutting down, that's what I knew she was the one for me. Ah, the memories."
Barton turns the tables on her and carries her unconscious to the airlock as I cheered at the screen and made some popcorn. At the last moment she wakes up and begs him not to do it, even as he's stuffing her in and sealing the door behind her. But he hesitates, and I shout profanities at the screen; there are 30 minutes of this movie left and I realize this Sci-Fi channel shitfest doesn't have the balls to space the bitch. No, I'll be forced to watch some contrived scenario that allows one of the most truly loathsome characters I've ever endured to survive the movie.
Blah blah they figure out the medical supplies are bogus, so they dump them. Then they fuck so we know they love each other, with all the passion they've built up over the last two hours of shouting, punching and elbowing, beating into unconsciousness, and choking with shoelaces. Once they dump the supplies, the ship is under the required weight, but oh noez! That was the calculation from 2 hours ago, but now they've traveled those 2 hours overweight, so now they need to lose another 100 pounds to make it! Nobody could've seen that coming, certainly not the highly-trained spaceship pilot! Well, and me, and about 20 minutes into the movie. You know a sci-fi film is shit when its grasp of actual science is worse than mine.
So we get the scene where
Time to get to the end of this crap. There's a framing story I haven't mentioned before because it's only (kind of) relevant now. The corporation has been investigating the loss of the medical supplies, interviewing characters in the movie, and now they're finally bringing in Barton to pronounce sentence upon him. This dastardly dictatorship, prepared to send miners into an area where a deadly fungus grew just for profit...okay, only after they had a vaccine to inoculate them first. Which they provided free of charge. That presumably cost a great deal to develop, mass-produce, and deliver to the colony--look, shut up! They're evil, alright? The Party or the Corporation or whatever Evil Gubmint it is punishes this brazen act of defiance with...
...wait for it...
...fifteen years in prison! Oh the horror, the horror!
Look, I'm not saying 15 years in prison--or any time in prison--is a cakewalk, but really, I expect more from my humanity-controlling greedy totalitarian dystopia corpo-governments. At least make him love Big Brother and then kack him, or something. Sheesh! You guys really suck at brutal totalitarian dictatorship. Mao Zedong would've executed Barton, his family, his dogs and cats, his goldfish, his neighbors, anybody who met him or wanted to meet him or saw a picture of him one time or thought maybe they might've seen him somewhere 'cause he's got that kind of face that just seems so familiar...and you give the guy a lousy nickel-and-dime in minimum security white-collar resort prison?
And of course, it's implied that this small act of defiance in the name of
Fuck this movie with a chainsaw-shaped dildo.
*Actual things I shouted at the screen in glee, probably confusing, not to mention annoying, my neighbors.