“Unstoppable” offers thrills, little depth

Nate Lessler

Before “Unstoppable” even begins, the audience has a good idea how the movie will end.  This is because director Tony Scott’s (“Man on Fire”) latest high-stakes thriller is based on the “Crazy Eights” incident. During this near-disaster in 2001, an unmanned freight train carrying toxic and combustible materials traveled at almost 50 miles per hour across the railroads of Pennsylvania in the direction of Stanton, Pa. Had the train derailed in Stanton, the catastrophic result would have made national news. As such, it is not entirely a spoiler to reveal that the train does not, in fact, blow up a city.

Despite its predetermined narrative arc and weak screenplay, “Unstoppable” manages to provide 100 minutes of high-adrenaline thrills. In these terms the film is successful. The use of an exciting, overly-dramatic score and fast cut handheld sequences heighten the suspense as a veteran engineer (Denzel Washington) and a young conductor (Chris Pine) work with the support of the yardmaster (Rosario Dawson) to stop the train. The poorly-written subplots involving the protagonists’ relationship to their families only exist to give the audience a hollow sense of character development. But the movie isn’t about the characters: it’s about a train.

As I left the theater, I found myself questioning why the filmmakers would choose to produce an action film based on true events with a predetermined outcome rather than creating a fictional scenario in which the screenwriter has full creative license to do whatever he or she wants with the story. In order to justify the thrills, “Unstoppable” does take a number of creative liberties, however. The film’s train, for example, moves at 70 miles per hour, not 50.

It was only after the screening that I realized that the inclusion of a “based on true events” title card at the start of the film gives a sense of authenticity to the representation and ultimately distracts from the weak screenplay. The film is thrilling primarily because these events really happened. Had the exact same film been presented as fictional, audiences would have rolled their eyes and scoffed at how absurd the film was, and would have likely paid more attention to the clichéd and stale script. Instead, the audience will likely find themselves frightened by the fact that an unmanned train carrying hazardous materials almost derailed into a major city.

Unlike most contemporary action films, the audience is incapable of reassuring themselves that the events that occur in the film are implausible. Although the events are dramatized, there is no way to escape the reality of what is happening on the screen. This is furthered by the fact that much of the film was shot on location. The film also constantly cuts to staged television coverage of the event, in order to provide the viewer with a sense of realism and serves as a plot device to provide the audience with poor exposition.

“Unstoppable” is ultimately as forgettable as it is thrilling. If the film does have something to say about man’s inability to control machines or the disconnect between blue-collar workers and corporate executives, the message is lost under the roar of the high-speed train. Nevertheless, “Unstoppable” is probably the most entertaining film that will be playing at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas for the next few weeks: at least for students who are not fans of Harry Potter.