Directed by: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn, Ethan Suplee
Whatever you may think of Tony Scott’s talents as a director (he’s no Ridley, is he?), he does have a knack for making his movies look pretty good. Unstoppable is no exception, with the saturated colors and rapid-fire editing he usually employs. And as daft as it may sound, I’d actually rank this almost ridiculously simple film among his better ones. No match for True Romance, obviously, but it certainly works better than Pelham 1 2 3 or Domino. Me, I like Enemy of the State. Never been much of a Top Gun fan…
Where was I? Right, “ridiculously simple”. The plot in this one is as thin as the paper it was written on, but sometimes simple is good. Through a combination of laziness and incompetence, a couple of train yard workers cause a half-mile long freight train, loaded with highly flammable chemicals, to head — driverless and at full speed — towards the town of Stanton, Pennsylvania, where an elevated curve will make it crash with all sorts of destruction as a consequence. After the railroad company attempts, and of course fails, to stop the train, it is up to veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Washington) and his rookie conductor partner Will Colson (Pine) to chase down the runaway train in order to get on board and stop it. Add an evil railroad boss, a dash of clichéd characterization, shake camera, and serve loud.
The worker primarily responsible for the screw-up is Ethan Suplee in the role as Dewey, whose last name surely must be Hickey. Tasked with moving the huge train, Dewey and his colleague can’t be bothered to connect the air-brakes. Spotting a switch set to the wrong track, Dewey then puts the locomotive at full throttle, before jumping off to re-set the switch, only to stumble and fall, and then being unable to get back on the train.
While we wait for the two trains to collide on the main line, Frank and Will don’t get along all that well in their rickety old locomotive — a sure sign that they will be best buddies before long. Pine is preoccupied and makes mistakes, because his girlfriend has slapped a restraining order on him. He is perfectly innocent, of course. Washington is the proud father of two Hooters waitresses, but father/daughter relations aren’t that good. These scenes are so shallowly written that it’s obvious that not even the filmmakers care about the characters. Bring on some train action, already!
Which is what Unstoppable does pretty well. The action scenes are well made, though perhaps not spectacular. The attempts to stop the runaway train involves dropping a guy on top of it from a helicopter, put another locomotive in front of it to try to brake it, having marksmen shoot at the fuel switch, and finally to derail it. After the runaway blows right through the derailing contraptions, Denzel and Chris succeed in chasing down the train. Pine gets injured as he tries to connect the locomotive to the rogue train. Washington manages to jump aboard and tries to reach the locomotive, applying the brakes on individual cars as he goes, while that fatal Stanton curve rapidly approaches…
What makes Unstoppable pretty effective is its sheer relentlessness. It is a fast, loud, single-minded action/adventure. You don’t have to worry about anything besides the physical movement of people and objects, because characters and backstories are, as stated, more or less non-existent. The downside of this approach should be obvious. The suspense is moderate at best, because we never for a moment doubt the outcome, and we don’t really care anyway. Nevertheless: as mindless entertainment, Unstoppable is quite passable.
“Is it a disaster movie at all?” some may ask, given the fact that the expected disaster is (ooooh! spoiler alert!) averted at the last moment. Well, it might be borderline, but if we consider Airport ’79 (a loopy crime thriller) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (a loopy treasure hunt aboard a wreck) to be disaster movies, I think a case can be made for Unstoppable.* That said, the body count is disappointingly low, and the destruction is kept to a relative minimum, with an exploding locomotive and a bunch of collisions with vehicles on or near the tracks as highlights.
*) An essay discussing how to define the disaster movie genre is brewing. Got some reading to do first, though.
Regarding the debate of what constitutes a disaster movie: check out the discussion pages for Wikipedia’s “List of Disaster Movies” entry to see the vast difference of opinion, and how emotional people can become over it.
Personally, if another genre overwhelms the disaster aspect, it’s not a disaster movie. The Cassandra Crossing is a close call, but for me the climax retains its disaster genre qualification, in contrast to other movies with train wrecks that aren’t the movie’s centerpiece (The Fugitive). Unstoppable precursor Runaway Train is a really tough call; I would include it on a reference list but really wouldn’t count it as a genre entry.
Beyond Poseidon and The Concorde–Airport ’79 skate by on their sequel status and stuff-blows-up finales. But the Wiki page has (or had, last time I peeked) zombie movies and plague scenarios that I don’t think even remotely qualify as disaster genre (not to mention giant-monster flicks).
One could argue over Outbreak (I wouldn’t include it), but Zombieland, or I Am Legend, disaster movies? Seriously? Pft! You might as well include Dreamworks’ Monsters vs Aliens or X-Men: The Last Stand because the Golden Gate Bridge gets trashed.
My own rules and exceptions:
(1) The disaster or impending disaster has to be what the movie’s about. It doesn’t have to actually occur, but everyone’s got to be concerned with it as some point, even if it pops up out of the blue in the last five minutes (Smash-Up on Interstate 5) or the first five minutes (Miracle on Interstate 880) to kickstart or terminate the story.
(2) If another genre overrides the disaster, it’s not really a disaster movie. I wouldn’t call Crash! or The Car (1977 possessed-car movies), disaster movies; they’re horror/fantasy. Paul Haggis’ or David Cronenberg’s Crash are character dramas that use car wrecks as catalysts, but the crashes aren’t the true focus or an anticipated climax. Knowing is out-and-out sci-fi (and, frankly, arson-porn). The Final Destination franchise is horror (or more accurately, faux-snuff, since the only suspense comes from waiting for the next splatter effect). Rollercoaster is borderline acceptable, because everything coming after the unforgettable disaster barely registers, and the threat of further disasters drive the story. The Core is another close call, but because everyone’s racing to prevent a violent world-ending disaster and the movie is peppered with other big catastrophes.
Plague movies I would file away in their own genre. The Birds or Day of the Triffids would fall into it, I suppose; I certainly wouldn’t call ’em disaster films. To me, “disaster movie” says “sudden and violent and then over,” not lingering and gradual and culture-realigning.
Don’t even get me started on The Happening.
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with most of what you say, particularly that the disaster should be central to the plot. Personally, I also feel that the events should be at least grounded in identifiable reality (meaning no space aliens, zombies or supernatural events/entities) — though actual “realism” obviously isn’t a requirement for the genre. 😉
Most monster films are out (I’m on the fence about Cloverfield), but I have a soft spot for “bug infestation” films (like Destination: Infestation), though I think I’ll have to deal with those case-by-case. What I do have some problems with are disasters (or threats thereof) caused by various terrorist scenarios — those films too often feel like standard thrillers to me.
Will discuss this more at length in a separate post when I’ve had time to collect my thoughts a bit better.
I think that Unstoppable qualifies as a Disaster Movie, (or at least a NEAR Disaster). What I find unacceptable is Zombie movies and Alien movies under the Disaster moniker. Alien movies are pure Sci-Fi and Zombie movies are, well, ZOMBIE movies! Some of us do not like them. Some of us like to see comets, asteroids, tidal waves or other such impending doom, without a supernatural element. Once that is added- it is a WHOLE ‘nuther ballgame!