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November 13, 2010


Sometimes you have to wonder how a movie like Unstoppable gets “inspired by true events”. Let’s take a stab at reconstructing the process, shall we?

There are a lot of interesting stories around trains. One of the most impressive is the Crazy Eights incident. On May 15, 2001, CSX train 8888 — a model SD-40 locomotive trailing 22 loaded and 25 unloaded freight cars for a gross trailing weight of 2898 tons — accidentally departed a yard near Toledo, OH. Over the next two hours it traveled approximately 66 miles to Kenton, OH, at a top speed of approximately 51 mph, before personnel were able to bring the movement under control by coupling another locomotive to the rear car and applying it’s dynamic brake.

It’s a pretty amazing story, and it was probably a tense situation when it happened, but it doesn’t make for much of a movie. To fix it, first we have to add some heroes. Let’s make one of them a rookie (Chris Pine) and the other a grizzled old-timer (Denzel Washington). We’ll give each of them some pretty generic family issues to keep them distracted and motivated, and to have someone to cut away to with concerned, worried looks.

Of course, what are two working-class heroes without evil white-collar management (Kevin Dunn) to oppose them. As a bonus, we can use corporate cost-cutting to drive a wedge between our two heroes. Of course, we won’t leave them to fend entirely for themselves; we’ll give them a sympathetic trainyard manager (Rosario Dawson as a token female character) to help.

But we don’t really want to upset the train industry. Sure, complex systems have all sorts of unforeseen errors, and no real negligence was involved in Crazy Eights. But we have to preserve the industry’s public safety image, so let’s top off our cast with a lazy corner-cutter (Ethan Supplee) to conveniently shoulder the blame.

Now, we still don’t have any real danger, other than a possible derailment. Let’s load four or five of those cars with molten phenol, turning our train into “a missile the size of the Chrysler building”. Incidentally, the Chrysler building is only about a thousand feet tall, but we’ll also say the train is half a mile long. As long as we’re playing fast and loose with the numbers, let’s say the train is a million tons. What’s a factor of 300 to a movie?

Speaking of numbers, we need to put a lot of people in danger here. Let’s put the train is southwest Pennsylvania and aim it at a fictional “town” called Stanton, and let’s say it’s got about 750,000 people in it. Who really cares that the whole city of Pittsburgh only has about 300,000 people? This is a big movie and it needs a big town! In fact, let’s quote the population of “tiny” towns at about 12,500.

Let’s also make sure there’s an S curve (that only turns one way, so more like half an S) in Stanton, and put some giant fuel oil tanks just below the turn where the train will surely fall onto them if it’s not stopped in time. To keep the tension up before the ending, well fill the middle stretch with more hazards, like long populated areas, railroad crossings, and a trainload of adorable schoolchildren. Throw in two or three risky attempts at stopping this train, complete with stunts and shaky helicopter news footage, and now you’ve got yourself a movie.

And Tony Scott takes this gloriously overblown, wildly implausible bucking bronco of a movie and he shoots the hell out of it. He moves it from early summer to fall, shooting the rust belt landscape in browns and greys where it’s not built up with concrete and steel. It feels just as gritty and determined as our hard-working protagonists have to be. The action sequences are spectacular, with a shaky hand-held camera adding back the speed and urgency that running the trains at moderate speeds takes out. What it’s missing in any sort of verisimilitude, it more than makes up for in cheap thrills.

Unstoppable is ludicrous and melodramatic at it’s best. It’s also one of the wildest rides going, and that’s gotta count for something.

Worth it: yes, but only on a very big screen.
Bechdel test: fail.

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