Tony Scott is making progress. He seems to have attached his camera to some kind of a stabilizing device, which keeps it from shaking with head-churning intensity. But that doesn’t mean he’s keeping the camera still; in Unstoppable he has a new trick - endless swooping pans across the frame, which make every two shot into some kind of swerving mini-helicopter shot. It’s probably supposed to make static scenes feel exciting (and Unstoppable, mostly about two guys sitting in a train cab, has lots of static scenes), but it really just made everything seem kind of funny. The technique makes the whole movie come off slightly like a parody of itself.
Despite that, Unstoppable is a whole lot of fun. It’s a kind of movie that I like quite a bit - the ‘mission control’ movie, where we’re watching characters in one location trying to solve a problem in another location. The problem here is a runaway train that’s going at full speed, is loaded with toxic chemicals, and is hurtling directly towards a serious curve in the middle of a population center. The train will never make the curve, and hundreds of thousands could be killed in the ensuing disaster. Rosario Dawson is stuck in the control room, working on radio with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, mismatched engineers who have to work together to save the city. There’s a lot of time spent on the radio and shouting back and forth and coming up with plans and ideas and thoughts on how to stop the train. The climax of the movie actually involves Kevin Corrigan doing calculations on an envelope - a heroic use of physics!
There’s something really old fashioned about Unstoppable. It’s a wonder that the film got through the development process without being turned into Die Hard On a Train; instead the action and suspense of the film come from watching gauges, from pulling levers really really hard, from jumping from train to train and from trying to kick pieces of metal into place. It’s the kind of action that doesn’t require conflict or any real bad guys - the train gets loose because Ethan Suplee is sort of an idiot, and the corporate guys who are making the wrong choices about stopping the train are among the least evil suits I’ve seen in a movie in a way. Even the runaway train itself is sort of presented in a nice light - it certainly looks good smashing through things that have been (almost comically) placed on the tracks.
Denzel Washington and Chris Pine don’t play characters so much as they play ideas of characters. Each has a reason to survive the day, but Scott and writer Mark Bomback aren’t all that concerned with going in-depth into these men. We get their basic set ups in as little time as humanly possible and then we’re on a train hurtling out of control. Rosario Dawson doesn’t even get that much background; I guess we just assume that a woman in a job like that is already facing a tough world.
Mostly Denzel and Pine sit in the cab of a train they’re driving backwards and try to deliver scant lines as the camera swoops between them. The truth is that they’re not the stars of the film - the stars of the film are the trains, which are shot in nearly pornographic detail. Unstoppable is the new favorite film of every young boy obsessed with big machines; seemingly 70% of the runtime is taken up with shots of the trains muscling through the countryside. That almost sounds terrible but there’s a glee about it that I enjoyed. Even though I’m not a machine guy, I was taken with the film’s love for the engines.
There’s something interesting going on in Unstoppable, and it’s the realization that Denzel Washington has hit that stage of his blockbuster career where it seems like he could die at any moment. Tony Scott has killed Denzel before, but that was a redemptive death for a darker character. Watching Unstoppable you see that a Denzel death here would be the uplifting end for an old man making way for the new hero. All of a sudden Denzel has stepped into old guy roles; between this and The Taking of Pelham 123 it seems as though Tony Scott is working to make Denzel palatable to the AARP set.
I won’t spoil Denzel’s fate for you but I will say that Unstoppable isn’t looking to make you feel much of anything besides edge of your seat excitement, which it manages to do with adroit manipulation. This is a heavy handed thriller that has one goal - to keep you frozen in cheap suspense with that kernel of popcorn poised just outside your gaping mouth. It does that excellently, but does little else. There’s no connection or meaning to be found, just a chugging, loud, ride. In the hands of a lesser director that would make for an empty, dull film, but Tony Scott knows what he’s doing. He’s an old hand at this sort of thing.
You’ll never sit through Unstoppable again, but it’s a movie worth a good lazy afternoon viewing. Just be aware - if you take your kids to see it, you’ll probably have to buy them a train set afterwards. One where they can crash the trains together again and again.