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



Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power