A pitch-perfect action film, Unstoppable is a runaway-train story based on the CSX Locomotive No. 8888 incident. An enormous, fast-moving, and unmanned vehicle is carrying dangerous chemicals toward a heavily populated city, and it’s up to our heroes to save the day. (For my gaming friends, does this premise remind you of Blast Corps on the Nintendo 64? It does for me!)
Runaway train, never going back…
The movie’s opening credits, with footage running at a framerate that almost looks like stop-motion video, establish scenes of a family man with a normal life, helping to humanize various characters in a calm environment before everything goes downhill. Boy howdy, it does. Young, spunky railroading newcomer Will Colson, who should look familiar, is assigned to the same train as Frank Barnes (the always wonderful Denzel Washington), the Allegheny and West Virginia Railroad #1206. Colson, however, has already built up a degree of distrust from others due to his family’s multiple connections to the industry, and likewise, Barnes is being mistreated due to his age, even though he’s had at least as many years of railroading experience as Colson seems to have had of life. With labor politics already running behind the scenes, the story’s setting could have been much more complex and thought-provoking than it was allowed to be. The movie, not necessarily to its detriment, instead focuses on more immediate issues such as–let’s face it–a massive train careening, with hazardous freight, toward a large residential area.
As someone who lives near several sets of tracks, this whole premise makes me anxious. The train that fuels the plot, the AWVR #777, becomes the target of several neglectful decisions and soon lacks both air brakes and an onboard engineer, who himself looks like he could be in better shape. After Colson and Barnes get their train in motion, the movie spends just enough time establishing both individuals as human beings with children and familial struggles of their own, which are just saved from feeling “typical” thanks to a number of minor plot twists later in the film. The characters exchange lots of trade jargon, which shows them to be well-meaning people with an eye for safety that isn’t always shared in this movie, and the camera movements do a great job of creating a sensation of speed.
Chris Pine’s portrayal of Will Colson feels similar to how Captain Kirk acted in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, but as was the case with those movies, this character’s (eventually) heroic personality keeps him from becoming smug and annoying. Colson doesn’t like being asked to prove himself as the new guy, and Barnes understandably doesn’t like seeing his peers undercut by rookies fresh out of training. Washington’s portrayal of Barnes is more measured when compared against Pine’s blatant confidence, but both capably prove themselves as “action heroes” in styles that differ from what might be necessary for a Star Trek or a Book of Eli.
Training Day (I’m sorry, but I had to!)
The movie’s atmosphere quickly becomes horrific, as the uncontrolled #777, sans air brakes, heads toward opposing traffic. A shot of a field-trip train full of young children, ignorant of the danger they’re in, is played for drama and a ton of suspense. That same atmosphere capably inserts just enough comedy as we learn that Barnes’ two adult daughters are waitresses at Hooters, whose inherent moments of fanservice feel like extremely dark comedy in a movie like this. Yardmaster Connie Hooper, played by Rosario Dawson, balances capability with reasonable apprehension as she remotely manages the growing crisis. A federal safety inspector explains the significance of #777’s cargo just before that train narrowly averts a castrophe in an unforgettably harrowing sequence. The movie’s breakneck pacing works in its favor, and it keeps on going.
The music early in the movie consists mostly of ambient background noises that add to the mood and tension, and while the train-action scenes are excellent, there are too many moments, including some from multiple newscasts, that restate how and why the situation is so dire. There’s a lot of profanity, but it does add to the film’s atmosphere without feeling overwhelming as in something like Premium Rush or, to some extent, Django Unchained. As for the camera, it’s taken to swaying to and fro, which makes every scene appear to take place in motion, as though it were on a train itself. It works surprisingly well. The locomotive is made a monster, thanks to several moments where it heads directly toward the camera, and one shot where it hits a trailer and flips it is both amazing and horrifying.
The movie’s scale is increased when emergency responders enter the picture and begin trying several different means of stopping the train, including attempting to shoot a safety switch that unfortunately happens to be near its fuel tank. Another idea fails so disastrously that its impressive special effects come at tragic cost for one character, but the movie does not have or take much time to grieve. Strangely, Frank Barnes’ daughters spend pretty much all of the movie without showing concern for their father’s danger or his well-being, even as his call to tell them both that he loves them is sincere and touching. It and the rest of his backstory are nothing original but are developed well. Drama is added with a highly unpopular corporate plan to derail and flip the train, this being an idea with so many logical holes that by the time I finished typing in my review notes why this wouldn’t work, the AWVR #777 had already plowed right through said derailer.
The movie really gains a human touch once Colson’s and Barnes’ families are able to watch newscasts of the unfolding events, and this really helps to provide context for action pieces that are already fantastic, even if one requisite “villain” feels rather thin compared to most of the other characters. The family subplots, while meaningful enough on their own, never really intersect. The story also does a good job of making the large population of the city that #777 is hurtling toward feel more like actual people and less like an arbitrary number. The stuntwork is also excellent, with many late moments being particularly nightmarish to think about, even if some environmental sections don’t really make a whole lot of sense–it doesn’t seem very responsible to place large fuel-storage tanks right next to a sharp railway curve, for example.
It’s hard to stop a train!
While being a bit too predictable for its own good, such that one moment toward the end of the film feels like it’s setting up for a bait-and-switch that never comes, Unstoppable is a relentless force of a movie that provides as much excitement as genre fans could ask for. The characters are mostly likeable, even if their dialogue sometimes feels repetitive and a bit too concerned with making sure the audience is keeping up. The setting has enough detail to get by, even as some of its included subplots, especially Barnes’ age discrimination, feel slightly underused.
The movie knows what it’s best at, however, and it certainly delivers. As a bonus, the ridiculously heartwarming denouement deserves praise for its lack of excess in tugging on viewers’ emotions. Unstoppable is a Michael Bay film done better, with action that isn’t dragged down by uneven pacing, even if the characters and the places they live in could have used more detail.
Thanks go to The CineTrains Project for the front picture of the AWVR #777.