Unstoppable

When I saw the trailer for this film a while back, the first thing I thought of (after I realised it wasn’t a joke trailer) was an episode of The Simpsons, “The Springfield Files,” in which Homer tries to tell Lenny and Carl about the movie Speed, except he can’t remember the title:

I saw this in a movie about a bus that had to speed around the city, keeping its speed over fifty. And if its speed dropped, the bus would explode! I think it was called… The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down.

Homer was, of course, talking about Speed, but Tony Scott’s latest in a series of cinematic abominations—after his moronic remake of Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—is almost as preposterous as that description. (At least Keanu Reeves’ Officer Jack Travern was at the whim of a madman, the maimed Vietnam vet Howard Payne, played expertly by the late Dennis Hopper.) The painfully stupid Unstoppable is about a train with its throttle stuck in high gear bearing down a track with numerous obstacles in the way, including other trains, one of which is full of schoolchildren on a field trip to learn about railway safety. (This is the sort of situation Alanis Morissette might call ironic.)

What’s more, train 777, travelling at 70-some miles per hour, has a payload of toxic nuclear waste—specifically, “highly unstable” molten phenol—on more than a few of its two-dozen cars, as evidenced by the (accidentally?) upside-down ‘hazardous radioactive material’ sign on the front of the train in at least one of the film’s international posters. (The real train in Ohio on May 15, 2001, was carrying explosive cargo but reached a maximum speed of only 46 miles per hour.)

At the start of the film, lovably tubby character actor Ethan Suplee and his buddy T.J. Miller play engineers who leave the air brakes on a train disconnected because they figure they can attach them once they get the train out of its siding and onto the main track. Because the train’s pulling a heavy load, Suplee puts the throttle into eighth gear (i.e., top speed) and engages the hand brake before jumping out of the engine to manually switch a fork up ahead on which the train would have otherwise derailed.

Then comes the film’s most ridiculous shot: we see the independent brake disengage itself and the now unmanned train slips into high speed, dangerous freight in tow, on a collision course with that train full of school kids. (In real life, the engineer simply failed to engage the independent brake in the first place; why the filmmakers decided to make the train turn the brake off of its own volition is a complete mystery.)

Denzel Washington, typecast once again as “the old guy just weeks from retirement,” teams up with Chris Pine (JJ Abrams’ Star Trek) as they go out on their own train to try and stop the runaway locomotive before it hits a bend in the track in the middle of a densely-populated small town. (Because the track is surrounded by gasoline tanks, the whole town and its several hundred thousand inhabitants are likely to go up in flames.) Against the advice of their higher-ups, Denzel and Chris Pine plan numerous ways to stop the train, both by slowing down in front of it and coupling to it and trying to pull it back from the rear.

In the control room, Rosario Dawson (who takes it upon herself to lead operations) and Kevin Corrigan (a technical expert whose advice is largely ignored) have a few heated arguments about what to do, while there’s a corporate meeting going on at company HQ. This last part involves a really great line in a phone conversation to the head honcho while he’s on a golfing green: completely ambivalent about the potentially massive loss of life, his only worry is how a disaster might affect the company’s performance on the stock market. This is the film’s single moment of insight, and the only time I laughed at any of its jokes.

While the acting is expectedly sub-par, Tony Scott’s most grievous sin here is formal: presumably in service of some vérité ideal, he incorporates, throughout the film, techniques and visual tics from reality tv: snap-zooms, fast-motion and frequently repeated shots, mostly of the speeding train doing its thing—over and over and over. Complementing this is Scott’s decision to flit between the fictionalisation of the events, and re-created news footage. The news footage is distinguished from the rest of the film by scan lines, which not only look ugly but are a relic of the pre-digital television age: they are out of place in a contemporary action-thriller.

Not to mention the fact that the news footage itself is largely superfluous: news anchors and reporters simply regurgitate, ad nauseam, exactly what we’ve just seen and heard the film’s characters describe. (The only justifiable use of the footage is to keep characters outside the situation informed: Chris Pine’s wife and family, for example, watch as events unfold, and Denzel’s two teenage daughters look on anxiously from the safety of the “Hooters” bar where they work as waitresses.) To see a film that uses tv content in a far more intelligent manner, watch, (of all movies) Get Him to the Greek: Nicholas Stoller’s follow-up to Forgetting Sarah Marshall smoothly incorporates fictionalised tv material into sequences very effectively, whether as a visual or sound bridge between shots, or interstitially between scenes in different locations—and doesn’t ever need to resort to scan lines to delineate (made-up) tv footage from the film’s mise-en-scène.

One of the elements that really makes Unstoppable unwatchable is that the train is made to seem evil, with ‘scary’ sound effects lurching over the sound track every time the train flies past on-screen. The sad thing is, if M. Night Shyamalama-ding-dong had made this, it would’ve been a guilty pleasure, brilliant in its atrociousness. As it is, Tony Scott has given us a cartoonish piece of drivel not too far removed from what Homer was trying to remember while scoffing donuts that day at the Springfield nuclear power-plant.

The SNL parody trailer accurately relays just how bad the film is, and, as a bonus, features Jay Pharoah’s uncanny Denzel impersonation.

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