You wouldn’t expect “inert” to be the best word to describe a film about a million pounds of freight, steel, and hazardous chemicals barreling with no brakes through the rail-side townships of Pennsylvania, but I guess that’s what happens when you take 45 minutes of concept and stretch it to a feature-length film that is, quite literally, on rails.
Walking into Tony Scott’s latest foray into a Denzel Washington led action film, I was actually quite excited. I never found myself laughing with disdain at the trailers the way a lot of my colleagues were, and I could definitely see the potential value of a tentpole-style action film about an out of control machine that is literally speed and force incarnate. Add in the charm of Washington and Pine and you could have yourself an action hit! In that way, much of the film met my expectations and yeah, Unstoppable is a fun enough time at the movies that doesn’t go too far out of its way to insult your intelligence or rape your senses. Unfortunately though, it’s never even remotely inventive and spends way too much of its running time stalling or trying to create the impression that something is happening when nothing is.
The set-up is simple; on the same day that Will (Pine) is starting his first day of train training under Frank (Washington), two idiots make a few huge errors that end up sending a dangerously-loaded train out onto a main Pennsylvania track with no air brakes and no conductor. Aside from the obvious danger of a 70-85 mile per hour steel asteroid streaking across the countryside ready to obliterate anything in its path, the track just so happens to run through the middle of the heavily populated town of Scranton via an elevated bend that will inevitably derail the noxious chemical-laden train. Rosario Dawson enters the picture as Connie, the freight yard master, and Kevin Corrigan joins her as an inexplicably-expert federal train safety inspector. The two struggle with Galvin (Kevin Dunn), the cooperate head who has all the bad ideas and nothing but corporate interests at heart. Apparently big, unfeeling metal boxes don’t make good villains, so a chubby asshole BP Exec stand-in has to do.
The film sets the train loose and blows past the child-endangerment segment exceptionally quickly, to the point you feel like this might be a hell of a ride. Once the first big attempt to stop the train fails and the media has really caught on to what’s up, it falls on Will and Frank to catch up to the train and slow it down. At this point the film finds the air-brakes that are so absent on its traintagonist, and engages them on itself. The problem is, they can’t get the good train to the evil train too soon or the film will run out of steam, so instead we spend what feels like thirty-plus minutes watching them chase it. Here’s the thing- a train chase is fucking boring. In fact, a lot of this action movie is fucking boring, but you don’t actually catch on to it because of Tony Scott’s bombastic, empty filmmaking.
Credit where credit is due- Scott really tones down the hyper-flashy coverage, inexplicable cut-aways, and schizophrenic editing he’s become known for and that has made films like Domino nearly unwatchable. The cuts-per-minute ratio of Unstoppable is really quite restrained, and probably wouldn’t even come in much over your ordinary blockbuster’s. Which brings me to how Scott did choose to shoot the film… Often when describing the plot of something, you will say that it “revolves around” a particular subject. Well, Unstoppable revolves around everything, quite literally. What I mean is that in this film, every. fucking. shot. is done in speedy lateral motion. I feel like this must come from developing a look for a film centered around shooting trains. Inherently, the most dynamic shot you can get of a train is to zoom towards it and then peel off to one-side as it passes, right? Well you’ll get dozens of those shots (don’t worry), but it seems Scott felt that dynamism needed to be matched in the high-strung dialogue moments as well, which means left-right dollies anytime people are talking! All the time, every time. At least a full quarter of this film has to be presented in a shot that is either sweeping left or sweeping right, I would wager. Every conversation in the train-cabin, the freight yard hub, or any scene of action is covered in quickly paced dolly shots that run parallel to the subject. A drinking game keeping track of them would fill you with so much alcohol that not only would you die, but anyone else within a few miles would have liver failure as well.
The aforementioned obvious train shot is definitely abused, but all of the other typical shots are over-exploited as well; under the train as it passes, stationary low-angle from directly beside it, and the close-up from a great distance that keeps up with it. In fact, I can’t think of a single particularly inventive piece of photography involving the train despite the immense volume of train footage. This is not to say the film is shot incompetently, or that it is visually boring. I was just hoping that in the same way Danny Boyle managed to find every conceivable way of filming a guy stuck under a boulder, Scott would similarly find ways of dynamically capturing the metallic colossus around which the film focuses. He doesn’t really, and loathe as I am to mention it, I almost wonder if 3D might have done something to perk the visuals up. I have to pick on the sound design for a similar problem- the train is covered well, but I found myself listening for a lot of things in the soundtrack that simply weren’t there. The film is certainly booming, and each squealing brake and clacking rail is mighty, but the scenes between Will and Frank in the train’s cabin are oddly dead. Even a few big boisterous events are minimally covered- for example, at one point a half dozen massive metal tubes fall off a train and besides a bit of initial impact, they have no sonic presence whatsoever. I expected one of the biggest, most pounding soundtracks of the year, but it wasn’t there to be heard.
Thematically there’s virtually nothing there. The corporate decision-makers feel like half-assed attempts at BP-style manipulators, and there’s some pitiful allusions to the changing job market, with the old-timer vs. cheaper rookie dynamic of Will and Frank, but none of it is either direct or well-developed enough to register. The film almost manages some kind of commentary on the distracting ubiquity of cell phones –virtually every character interacts with a cellphone and bystanders are shown capturing the events on their phone en masse– but it doesn’t add up to anything at all. Even more blatant is the film capturing the horse race, of-the-moment event coverage style of the 24 hour news networks, with their silly charts, graphs, and hasty animations. I don’t know what commentary you could glean from it though, considering the film uses news segments and reporter’s commentary not just as a crutch, but as a full on electric wheelchair for the narrative. Nearly every action in the film is either narrated by onlooking reporters, or explained in some kind of news animation. Once the train catastrophe becomes public knowledge, I would estimate at least a third of what you’re watching at any given time is news coverage. If only it meant something, because there’s nothing visually compelling about any of it.
Pine and Washington do a decent job of being as entertaining to watch as we expect them to be, and they cram an admirable amount of chemistry and heart into their one-family-explaining-monolog-apiece set up. They are surprisingly side-lined for much of the film though, and even during their screentime are often separated or just sitting apart from each other in the cabin. Pine has a nice little action moment at one point, but really these guys are just here to add a little star-power and to be charisma machines.
Unstoppable isn’t horrible- most of the flaws I’m describing are complaints about a lack of innovation or creativity rather than a lack of competence. The film is extremely watchable, and a mainstream crowd will likely eat it up (my screening’s audience certainly did) as there are plenty of moments to “ooh” and “ahhh” at the train’s might, and yell triumphantly at the climactic successes. That said, it’s not the perfect blockbuster spectacle film, even in the “mindless fun” sense of things. There’s nothing wrong with getting swept up into the spectacle and running along the rails for awhile, but even the least bit of thought is going to suck the air out of the needlessly chaotic filmmaking, and poke holes in the flimsy physics. Ultimately, I’m just left wondering how the script for this thing was more than 50 pages long.