It’s been a while since I’ve settled down to enjoy a Disaster Movie in the cinema. Possibly the last time was 2012 which, arguably, wasn’t unadulterated pleasure. So tempted by the idea of a runaway train tearing through Pennsylvania at breakneck speed and the promise of Chris Pine, I fought my way through ice and snow and outrageous temperatures to see Unstoppable. The theatre was heated, the coffee was good and the seat was premiere and so I was all set.
Chris Pine did something with the reboot of Star Trek that I didn’t think anyone could make me do. He made me not regret the reawakening of much loved scifi legends and he (along with the delectable Karl Urban) has left me wanting more. Therefore, the least that I could do was go and see Pine as the train conductor. I had, however, neglected to think about the train driver, Denzel Washington, and that was a mistake. Washington and Pine combine to form the perfect adventurous pair and even succeed in making the fates of the innocent railway crossing crossers secondary to the lives of these two likeable and likeably flawed men on the train.
The plot is not complicated. A train is let loose by, quite frankly, an imbecile and it sets off on its speedy course into populated areas with bendy railtracks. Its freight includes carriages of hazardous chemicals, not to mention the fuel, all ready to explode as the train nears urban centres. On the train’s tail are two railway men. One, Denzel Washington, is a veteran trainman who has remembered his daughter’s birthday a little late. The other, Chris Pine, is new to the job and he’s a reluctant conductor, rebelling against generations of trainmen in his family, and he is in the midst of a bitter fight to keep his wife and child.
As Washington and Pine chase (backwards) after the 777 train, they reveal to each other that, despite their suspicions of each other as a threat or as a reproach, they are at heart caring men with attractive smiles and with a courage that looks real and not the stuff of superheroes. This is not a disaster film with horrible slaughter and daring death-defying stunts. It’s exciting and the pace is fast but the action of the chase for the runaway train is married to our liking for the two central characters. As a disaster movie confined to the time of the chase there is little room for extra details about the lives of the men but there is enough that we have a sense of what will go on outside.
Back in the control centre we have Rosario Dawson as Connie, the Yard Master, who is faced with opposition from her superiors who is responsible for sacking much of the workforce to save money and she puts up quite a fight.
Unstoppable is a tour de force. The red of the 777 train, with the gold of screeching breaks, rips through the countryside. It speeds up and it slows down as hope rises and falls that the driverless train will be stopped. The achievement here is that the action is actually quite limited. We have two trains on a track, one chasing the other. And yet the pace never drops, characterisation is taken as far as it can be in the circumstances, life is almost wholly preserved and not gratuitously discarded for a dramatic moment. And the whole film reverberates to the sound and pulse of the wheels of the train as it tears on faster and faster.