Unstoppable: Disaster movies that are a runaway success

As Unstoppable goes on release, Geoffrey Macnab explores the thrill an out-of-control train brings to the screen

Did they really panic? It's one of the best-known stories about early cinema. The audience members at the first screening of the Lumière brothers' The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in early 1896 were so terrified at the sight of a steam train rumbling toward them on the big screen that they were thrown into convulsions of terror. Whether it's true or not, it's one of the defining moments in early cinema history. Ever since, movies about trains – especially runaway trains – have been made at regular intervals.

The latest arrival is Tony Scott's Unstoppable, already a box-office success in the US. In terms of plot and character, Scott's film is almost as simple-minded as the Lumières' venture on to the tracks well over a century ago. A goofy blue-collar worker accidentally sets the locomotive in motion. The train starts slowly enough, but gradually it begins to pick up speed. In the control room, the improbably glamorous Rosario Dawson is having a bad day. Her bosses don't realise how calamitous it will be if one million tons of steel derails. Enter Denzel Washington (yet again playing a salt-of-the-earth American everyman) as the railroad engineer who goes in pursuit of the runaway vehicle in a train of his own.

In its lesser moments, Unstoppable plays like an adult version of one of Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine stories but without the humour and with no sign of the Fat Controller. The entire drama of the film is based around the efforts to stop the train, which is carrying toxic cargo. (The token efforts at sketching in the back stories of the characters, for example, Washington's relationship with his daughters or his sidekick's messy marital situation, are laughable.) Either the train will stop or it won't. Audience members are likely to hope for the latter outcome if only because of the prospect of a massive and very satisfying explosion.

For all its shortcomings as drama, Unstoppable is thrilling in a fairground ride way. Trains photograph incredibly well. (Think of those wonderful O Winston Link images of trains at night hurtling through small American towns, belching steam as they go.) Scott's film – like all those train-based movies before it – appeals to a primal, anthropomorphic urge that audiences have always had. Trains have been used variously in the movies to represent speed, sex, escape and danger.

In David Lean's Brief Encounter, Celia Howard and Trevor Howard don't consummate their relationship but we do see plenty of imagery of trains disappearing down tunnels. (The symbolism must surely have been at least partially intentional.) Similarly, in Jean Renoir's La Bête Humaine and in Fritz Lang's Hollywood film Human Desire (both based on Emile Zola's La Bête Humaine), trains stand for passions running amok, heading down forbidden branch lines.

Silent comedians relished the possibilities of trains (notably Buster Keaton in The General). They're also used in countless Westerns and crime movies. Unstoppable, with its footage of Denzel Washington running on top of the carriages and of his sidekick (Chris Pine) boarding a fast-moving train, echoes these earlier movies.

The Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky who made Runaway Train (1985), a thriller about convicts aboard an out of control train, has his own theories about the fascination of the runaway- train genre. He suggests it is the relentlessness of runaway-train movies is what makes them so appealing. The physics helps too.

"There are a lot of particles that move much faster than the train. There are a lot of objects that move much faster than the train. These particles may be small, like atoms or electrons. The objects may be big like planets or meteorites but they are not relative to humans," Konchalovsky theorises. "It is difficult for us to understand an enormous object moving at the speed of light. It is also difficult for us to understand a tiny object."

'Unstoppable' is released today



Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent