November 19, 2010

Guess What Is Unstoppable: Movie Review


i probably saw a different movie than you

The plot of Unstoppable is deceptively simple: an unmanned freight train is accidentally sent running down the track, hurtling with all the force of an unmanned freight train towards a small town in Pennsylvania, where it will derail at a curve like an unmanned freight train and destroy the earth.  Two men, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, risk their lives to bring it to a safe stop.

True to the title, the train is unstoppable.  It defies its brakes, it blasts through an RV, it flips over several police cars, it flips a train in front of it which then explodes with the blast of the Manhattan Project, ignores a SWAT team shooting assault rifles at it (really) and not only rides right over the Automatic Derailers, it shoots them off the tracks where they take out some more police cars.

What no one initially realizes is that not only is the train 150 miles long and carrying AIDS, but it is also a Decepticon.  

Here's a movie tip: whenever they apply personification to an object, then that object itself stands for something else that isn't a person.  In this case the train, like zombies, is a metaphor for cold, uncaring, unstoppable, raging capitalism, and as soon as I say that the rest of the movie makes complete sense, i.e. makes no sense at all.  The movie then gets  retitled, Unwatchable.


This is what happens in the movie:

A dumb, fat, lazy white guy-- none of those are insults but deliberately highlighted aspects of the character--  made a series of errors:  didn't follow protocol, didn't listen to
his superiors, took shortcuts, all which lead to the train taking off at full throttle.  Fattastic's immediate response is to chase it, on foot.  Fail.

It hurtles towards a small town called Stanton, PA, home of All That Is Good In This World.  Who can save this small town of hard working folk from the evils of capitalism?  Not middle aged white guys, that's for sure, they got us into this mess.  No, the main good guy at HQ is a young non-white woman, Rosario Dawson, who I'm not sure is qualified to be an actress let alone in charge of a railroad.  But there she is, the voice of reason, a tough-as-nails mix of pragmatism and ethics, surrounded by Corporate White Guys who only care about the bottom line.

This scene actually happened:  a bunch of Corporate White Guys are sitting around a conference table trying to figure out how to stop the train with minimal damage to the company.   Finally, they call the Big Boss who isn't physically present on site during this disaster and can't be bothered to show up.   You'll never believe where he is.  A golf course.  I know.  The Suits tell him that the train has the potential to destroy reality as we know it, should they derail it?  and because he is a Decider he only needs to ask one question and that question is, "what will the effect on the share price be?"  I didn't know that that was something you could get a definitive answer to?  But I'm not white.

After the White Guys have tried everything else-- in other words, have made no real attempt slow Capitalism down, the actual job of saving the Earth falls to... wait for it... an older black man and a very young white man-- his apprentice.  They young white guy actually comes from a powerful family and they pulled strings to make him the conductor. The message is clear: the middle aged white guys have wrecked everything, the future belongs to the young white guys coming up but they don't know anything because they come from privilege, i.e. older white guys; and the only practical knowledge left is possessed by the hard working black men upon whose back the white guys built everything.  Hopefully the Denzels can pass their knowledge along to the Chrises quickly, because of course Corporate will be laying the Denzels off to replace them with Chrises, which, we learned, is precisely what has happened to Denzel.   And if you think I'm exaggerating this point, the only other black person in the whole movie is the schoolteacher.  Who will no doubt be laid off, just after she teaches all the white kids how to read and vote for Mitt Romney.


No surprise: they eventually stop the train.  But there's a completely unnecessary scene where they explain the plan.

The heroes/The Federal Reserve have a plan: chasing down Capitalism (from behind) in their engine, linking up, and then braking the whole thing to a halt.

A federal regulator, who at the beginning of the movie is ignored and marginalized, who only accidentally happens to be at HQ that day, disagrees:

INSPECTOR: I know the conventional wisdom is just link up and then throw the whole thing into reverse, but you'll get better traction if you alternate between braking and full throttle.

DENZEL: You sure about that?

INSPECTOR: Well, it's based on some preliminary calculations...

Get it?  Capitalism can be saved by interspersing braking with stimulus!  Wow.


The end of the movie is right out of a Lenin comic book.  The white guy is injured, so the black guy has to stop the train himself, and heroically runs from the Last Car Of The American Economy all the way to the front-- but the last jump is too big.   "I can't do it," he says. 

So it's up to the young white guy, heir to the future but injured in the present, to jump from a moving pickup truck back on to the Engine of Capitalism and bring it under control.  Which he does, yay.   If the movie ended there it could be considered class warfare propaganda suitable for the Cubans.

But then the movie takes a decidedly bizarre, American, turn.  The final scene is a press conference-- because the press always gets the final word about the resolution of a conflict and decide who's to blame and who's a hero.  As the proletariat heroes answer questions for the thankful public, Denzel then explains to Chris how Corporate called and thanked him, and gave him and Chris promotions.   And then... that's it.  End of movie.   No morality lesson, no one gets punished, everybody back to work.  Once the runaway train of Inflation And Catastrophe is stopped, it is returned to its Corporate owners and filled back up with plutonium and baby souls.

Cut to camera 5, and pull back: to reveal that you are seeing this all on a TV screen, you realize that you are watching all of this on the news; in fact, you recall that the entire movie has been saturated with reporters giving exposition, TV screens with FOX or CNN showing us what happens.  What we know-- the facts of the train's movements, etc, all come from the news:

unstoppable-breaking news.JPG

unstoppable-tv footage.JPG

Which is, after all, just like real life.


It's a legitimate question we all first voiced in 5th grade: did the writer really have all that in mind when he wrote this?  Maybe, maybe not, and I could also cop out by saying that the movie's accidental theme may be what resonated with an exasperated public, and thus makes it popular.

The problem with doing movie-as-social criticism is not that it reads too much into things but that it never goes to the inevitable conclusion.  If that train is rampant capitalism, then it was human error that caused the trouble.  None of this would have happened if it was all automated.  Drawing only from the text, the problem isn't that we need more ethical people, the problem is we need less people all together.  I'm not sure that's not the message they were hoping for.