It started slowly, almost subtle, taking its time, building slowly, and only exploded during the second half of the film, building much more quickly, so intense that I almost had to get up and run, finally reaching a devastating finale that left me weak.
Unfortunately, I’m not talking about the movie itself, but the headache that Tony Scott’s ridiculous shooting style gave me. And I’m not exaggerating.
Let’s talk about what works in “Unstoppable” first, which is pretty much everything else. This is one of those films that sounds ridiculous in concept, but which works incredibly well as an exercise in Everything Going Wrong. How does a giant freight train loaded with toxic chemical end up racing out of control through heavily populated areas? Well, “Unstoppable” finds a way to make the set up credible, even inevitable, and by the time, things are really rolling, you’re invested. Mark Bomback is an interesting screenwriter, a guy who just booked one of the best gigs in town last week when he was hired to rewrite “Shadow Divers.” It’s a big story, with a lot of moving pieces, and the way Bomback built this script for “Unstoppable” would indicate he’s the exact right guy for that job.
There are really three main characters in the film, all of them playing a key role in what unfolds. Frank (Denzel Washington) is a veteran railroader, a guy who has 28 years under his belt and who’s staring down the barrel of forced early retirement now. Will (Chris Pine) is an engineer on the other end of the timeline, one of the young guys being brought in for lower wages to help drive out older employees. And Connie (Rosario Dawson) is a dispatcher who watches these little bumps and mistakes erupt into this full-blown disaster, working tirelessly to figure out how to stop it from the very first moment she hears what’s going on. They are given able support by a cast including Ethan Suplee and T.J. Miller as the guys responsible for the train getting away in the first place, Kevin Dunn as Dawson’s direct superior, Kevin Corrigan as a safety inspector, and Jessy Schram as Pine’s estranged wife.
What makes the train such a great villain for a movie is the intractable, unreasonable nature of it. It’s not trying to hurt anyone. It’s not evil. It’s not motivated by anything. It is simply a force that must be dealt with, and the film does a great job of laying out what could happen, what has to happen, and then playing with expectations as they try to bring the train under control somehow. Chris Pine and Denzel Washington have real chemistry in their sequences together, and for Pine, this is an important film. He made a huge impression as Captain Kirk in last year’s “Star Trek” reboot, but the question is whether he’s got a career away from those films, and I’d say based on his work here that there’s nothing Pine needs to worry about. He’s got this ability to be very aggressive, surly, sullen, and still likable. Denzel is such a high-wattage movie star that he can overpower weaker actors, and Pine never once shows any sign of standing anything less than toe-to-toe with him. There’s just enough outside life for the two guys to make it easy to care about them. Washington’s got his daughters, Pine’s got his family, and they’ve both got the job as a common ground. The film strikes just the right tone between the two of them, and the action is well-staged throughout.
But here’s the problem… you’ve got this cast that’s doing everything right, and you’ve got this script that strikes just the right tone, and you’ve got the action staged just right… and then you shoot it all like you’re embarrassed by it, like you’re determined to hide it all and make it impossible to see.
Because that’s what Tony Scott’s visual signature has devolved to at this point, and I mean devolved. It’s been a sliding scale of incoherence for a while now, and Hollywood continues to fall over itself to reward him for it. It’s almost like a wicked joke that the name of the film that finally broke me in regards to Tony Scott is called “Unstoppable,” because he certainly is. If the film was just a bad film, it wouldn’t matter as much, but it’s a good film that is buried in a visual style that can best be described as “evasive.” It wasn’t always this way. When you look back at “The Hunger” or “Revenge,” those are not movie that are hyperactive in any way. His slick Hollywood action movies of that era? “Beverly Hills Cop II”? “Top Gun”? “Days Of Thunder”? Positively sedate by today’s standards. “The Last Boy Scout”? “True Romance”? They’re like oil paintings compared to what he’s doing now.
The way it developed in his work was insidious, gradual. I blame the Avid. The evolution of digital editing changed the rhythm of film language in general, and I think certain directors have pushed it much further than they should have, to the absolute detriment of their films and to the punishment of their audience. The thing about visual style is that I’m all for it as long as you’re saying something. The best stylists are the ones who understand that every edit, every composition, every choice you make in the way you assemble your film… that’s all saying something. That should all be in service of something. The way Scott shoots his films today, it’s like he’s overcompensating for material that doesn’t need it. What he did to Richard Kelly’s “Domino” script should be taught as a full semester in film schools. Watching “Man On Fire,” it’s like a race to see if the film can stay awesome no matter how hard Tony Scott tries to ruin it. In his last two films, it felt like he was pulling back on the over-active camera, but with “Unstoppable,” he’s gone haywire. And part of the problem is that he’s only got a small bag of tricks that he keeps using and re-using and re-using over the course of the film. Whoever approved his helicopter budget for the film should be tried as a criminal, because adding Scott’s fake-frantic visual tic to the swooping aerial footage is nauseating in a whole new way.
Now… about the motion sickness. I had a very real physical reaction to this film tonight. This is not an ordinary thing for me. I have several friends who are susceptible to this and who have had terrible responses to several films in the last decade as the handheld shaky-cam has become a more common tool in the mainstream. I have one friend who had to run out of a screening of “The Bourne Supremacy,” and who hasn’t seen a Greengrass movie since. Tony Scott has been a massive spastic in the past a few times, but I wasn’t read for this film tonight. The repetition of certain moves, the non-stop motion of the camera, the specific way he adds this false kinetics to the shooting style, and the fact that I ended up sitting in the first five rows of the theater because of the crowd tonight… it all added up to a physiological response that sent me reeling as soon as the closing credits began. I was sick once at the theater, and then had a headache that lasted for about five hours. It was only by laying in the dark and breathing slowly that I was able to finally get the motion sickness to subside. For at least an hour of that, my body still felt a sort of a rocking motion, like my brain thought it was moving. That’s what this particular trend in visual stylization has done to Hollywood… there is an entire style of filmmaking that part of the population has to avoid, and while I’m not normally one of them, tonight I was given a powerful lesson in just how bad it can feel. Sure, it doesn’t happen to everyone, and it doesn’t even happen to most people… but it happens. And knowing that, why would anyone shoot a movie like this? At some point, we’ll look back at this particular moment in filmmaking and laugh at people like Tony Scott. It’s like when Gaspar Noe plays with subsonic audio signals to make people physically uncomfortable in a theater… but at least he admits that doing that is intentional sadism. With Tony Scott, I genuinely wonder if he could explain or justify his continued insistence on shooting films with this degree of visual hyperactivity. Is he desperate to cover the fact that he’s a 66-year-old man at this point? He shouldn’t worry. No one’s every going to mistake Tony Scott for James Ivory, so he shouldn’t work so hard at pumping fake energy into everything. In general, this is a horrible trend in mainstream filmmaking, but no one has pushed it further or gotten such a dramatic response out of me until tonight. Enough. Please.
Even if you don’t even up affected by the style, it is a real shame that it obscures so much good work, and because of all of that good work, I’d say you should see “Unstoppable.” Just remember to sit in the back third of the theater. From that vantage point, you can focus on all the things that make “Unstoppable” such a plain old-fashioned pleasure, and hopefully experience none of the pain.
“Unstoppable” opens in theaters everywhere November 12.