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Blu-ray Review: Unstoppable (2010)

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Watching the special features on the Blu-ray release of Unstoppable (2010), one gets the impression that a whole lot of time both during pre-production and production was spent on character development, figuring out who these two main characters were and why they would what they do.  In piece after piece we get to hear about how they were researched, how their story changed, and how elements of the final tale are true to life.  As you watch the film though, none of that comes across.  Instead, what we get is a final product that is about a couple of non-entities trying to stop a runaway train, and that is just one of the reasons the movie is disappointing.

These two non-entities are played by Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, one of whom has proven himself versatile for years on end, and the other whom has shown that he can be incredibly compelling and a draw in his own right in a in a big-budget, special effects driven blockbuster.  Washington is Frank, the grizzled train-driving veteran with a couple of weeks left on the job before a forced earlier retirement and Pine is Will, the ne’er-do-well from a rich family and with problems of his own. 

As the story unfolds, it seems inconceivable that these wholly stock characters were constructed from the meticulous research that went into crafting the film, but the research certainly didn’t go into creating any of the other characters either.  Again here, the supporting cast isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, it features Rosario Dawson, Ethan Suplee, Kevin Dunn, Kevin Corrigan, and Lew Temple, but no one is given a real character to play, just words to yell out in an agitated and out of breath fashion as the unmanned train continues to roll.

Directed by Tony Scott and with a script by Mark Bomback, Unstoppable is “inspired by true events” and rather than being the story of any character in the film, is the story of a train accidentally sent down the tracks at high speed with no one aboard.  It is a film entirely about collisions, near misses, and the force that a half-mile-long freight train has when doing 70mph. 

Unfortunately, even here, the tale of the train’s power is given short shrift.  Unstoppable would kindly be called a “taut” action thriller, it’s 98 minute runtime only long enough to show the train going down the tracks and people being shocked by it.  Scott’s direction of Bomback’s script may place on emphasis on how things actually work on board a train and (maybe) in a rail yard, but none of that is ever conveyed to the audience.  Literally from the moment the train starts going, you’ll sit there wondering to yourself “Wait, why didn’t they just…?” and “huh, why are they doing that?”  I’m not convinced that Scott and Bomback don’t have great answers for why anything—like a bunch of armed police officers deciding to try to shoot a tiny button on the train to make it stop, a button located right next to a fuel tank—occurs, but the audience is never let in on any of it.  There simply exists a scene where the officers start firing at the train with nothing before it or after it to really give it context.  Well, nothing except a brief news report which immediately follows the scene and which says what the officers were shooting at (because the scene itself doesn’t even make that clear).

In fact, much of the film is filled with these news reports about what may or may not be happening on the train and it could be that the goal of the film is to give it a “film at 11″ feel.  Perhaps with its desire to not tell a story about the characters, merely to create heroes, and to give us no real context for anything that occurs, what Scott and Bomback have cleverly done is to craft a 98 minute indictment of newsgathering and news reporting in this country, but somehow I doubt it.

Unstoppable is a film that you want to like, it’s a movie that should have some excellent action, some spectacular crashes, and a whole lot of tension.  While it does sport some decent action and there is a spectacular crash or two, there is no sense of tension whatsoever.  Despite great quantities of humanity being placed in the train’s way (children of a field trip, a heavily populated town), not for a single second is it possible to believe that a large number of people will be killed.  Yes, there’s certainly some destruction and a couple of casualties here and there, but the big potential disasters will clearly never actually take place.

There are so many possible ways that Unstoppable could have been made to work, that it could have been made into a wholly engrossing action film.  None of that happens, and listening to Scott discuss the film in the extras it seems like he was so caught up in doing everything for real and understanding all the nuances of train life that he didn’t stop to consider whether or not he was doing anything worth watching for those who aren’t steeped in rail lore.  He wasn’t.

As for those aforementioned special features, the Blu-ray comes with a digital copy as well as two commentary tracks, one with Scott and one of talks between Scott and Bomback about the script (the latter is quite interesting).  There is also a decent behind the scenes documentary about the movie as a whole; one on the stunts; another on the work that went into a derailment caused for the movie; and one with Pine, Scott, Washington, and Dawson discussing the film together.  While none of the features is particularly brilliant, they are all far more engaging than the film itself and lead you to believe that the end result ought to be far better.

Where the release truly excels with its look and sound.  The visuals sport some grain (which assuredly is intended); great detail with the textures on clothes and other objects quite evident; and although the palette is mostly a muted one, what colors are there (like the red on the train, green of the trees, or orange-yellow of an explosion) are rich and great to look at.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is excellent.  There is a ton of bass as the trains roar down the tracks and the surrounds are very well used for locating you in the middle of the fracas, particularly as helicopters swoop around the train.  And, unlike many an action film, it is also well-mixed so that dialogue isn’t overpowered by special effects or music.

There is a great movie somewhere within Unstoppable, a movie about a brutal fight between man and machine; a movie about the incredible things we have created and how they could actually be our doom if we don’t respect them.  It wouldn’t be a new tale by any stretch of the imagination, but it would still be a compelling one.  That story could also take a backseat to one about the men involved in the rescue and the movie could be about these men overcoming their own demons to do something incredible.  That too wouldn’t be particularly new, but could still make a for an outstanding movie.  Instead, Unstoppable is nothing more than a tale about a train going really fast.  It fails to give the audience any reason to care about what’s happening and you may quickly find yourself rooting for the train to crash in a fiery wreck not only because it’ll look really cool but because the credits will start rolling that much sooner. 

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.