Tom Godwin’s story “The Cold Equations” infamously uses hard science and the unwavering laws of man and physics to punish a female interloper. The new Netflix film Stowaway takes the story’s basic premise and rewires its mechanism. Women become heroes rather than victims, and even the most unwavering equations can result in different answers, if you have the heart for it.
“The Cold Equations” originally appeared in the August 1954 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction. The main character, Barton, is piloting a tiny Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) to the frontier planet Woden to deliver medicine to treat a dangerous fever outbreak in the colony. He discovers a stowaway named Marilyn who is trying to visit her brother Gerry on the planet. Marilyn thought she’d just have to pay a fine, but the punishment for stowing away is death: “It was the law and there could be no appeal.” The EDS doesn’t carry enough fuel to make the run with the extra weight; the universe says Marilyn must die or the colonists will perish for lack of medicine. “Existence required order, and there was order; the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable,” Barton muses, with steely self-justification.
“Existence required order, and there was order; the laws of nature, irrevocable and immutable.”
Many readers and writers have been unimpressed with both the steeliness and the self-justification. Godwin himself wasn’t sold on it; he kept trying to find ways to save the girl in his story. But editor Campbell — a conservative sexist crank who wanted to use the story to prove that human sacrifice was justified in some situations — insisted that she had to die in the end. Critic and engineer Gary Westfahl found the story enormously frustrating, arguing that no ship would be built with such a small margin for error; the story, he said, was good physics but bad engineering. Science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow added that “The Cold Equations” is “a story designed to excuse the ship’s operators — from the executives to ground control to the pilot — for standardizing on a spaceship with no margin of safety.”
Director and writer Joe Penna is a lot more careful in constructing the plot mechanisms of Stowaway. The movie is set in the near future, on a three-person rocket headed to Mars. Shortly after takeoff, commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette) discovers that Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson), a launch plan engineer, accidentally stayed on the ship after takeoff. That in itself wouldn’t cause a crisis, but during launch his presence damaged the carbon dioxide scrubber. The ship has enough fuel to get to Mars, but not enough air.
In “The Cold Equations,” the murder of Marilyn is blamed on the universe itself. Stowaway, in contrast, sees the encroaching tragedy as the result of not the laws of physics, but of simple bad luck and human error. The rocket ship was originally only designed for two people; by adding a third to the original crew, mission control narrowed their margin of error dangerously. Even so, there are options. Biologist Daniel Kim (David Kim) tries to use algae to recycle some carbon dioxide. Medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick) suggests doing a space-walk to try to tap liquid oxygen which may not have all been used up in the ship’s launch. These are risky options, but they’re not automatically doomed to failure. Acquiescing to “physics” is a choice, not a necessity.
Zoe, in particular, insists that they keep trying to find a way to save Michael until they’ve absolutely run out of time. She effectively becomes the hero of the story. That’s an essential, and probably intentional, change from “The Cold Equations,” which frames its female character as ignorant victim. Campbell and Godwin engineered their plot to illustrate the brutal toughness and manliness of hard science-fiction. The protagonist shows his unyielding allegiance to Science by throwing womanly innocence and affective gush out of the airlock.
In Stowaway, though, the commander of the vessel is a woman, the stowaway is a man, and Zoe is the main character and protagonist. More, she emerges as the most physically competent person on the ship. That isn’t to say she’s an action hero like Wonder Woman or Sarah Connor. But she is young and fit and happens to be more capable than both of the men in performing certain tasks. Michael’s been injured and doesn’t have a lot of necessary training, while Daniel has problems with vertigo which are exacerbated on space walks.
Godwin’s female stowaway is motivated by her desire to be with her family; she’s doomed by love, which can’t stand against the power of Physics. In contrast, Zoe in Stowaway is the character who most insists on the value of empathy, and the one who is, at least in certain contexts, the strongest. Empathy and compassion aren’t vulnerabilities in this narrative. They’re resources, with which you can defy the cold cosmos — though not without cost.
Stowaway is a very small-scale space movie. There are only four actors, no aliens, no laser battles and minimal special effects. A broken hand or a vat of algae changing color qualify as suspenseful plot twists. The small cast and the cramped setting are meant to create a sense of limited options in a universe with few escape hatches. But where Godwin and Campbell are smugly satisfied with the construction of their death trap, Stowaway insists that there are possible paths out of even the most claustrophobic destiny, if you have the courage and love to see them. It’s not exactly a happy movie. But it’s not a cold one, either.
Stowaway will be available to stream on Netflix on April 22.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.