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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