The other night I was watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and during the playroom-set introduction to the Nearys, I became jealous of Richard Dreyfuss as he plays with a train set. First recalling that in my youth I always desired but never had an extensive set of trains and tracks, one that took up most of my basement, I quickly realized that I can still want it, and some day actually buy and build one. I’ll probably wait until I have kids (and a basement), so I have that excuse, but as is the case in many families, that set will be primarily Dad’s toy. Maybe as an homage, I’ll also build a Devil’s Tower in the center, just not using dirt and plants from my wife’s garden.
What does all this have to do with “Unstoppable,” the Oscar-nominated, Tony Scott-directed action movie that arrives on video today? Well, while watching it (before the “CE3K” viewing) I couldn’t help thinking about train sets. I guess I could have just said this without referencing the other film but I’m trying to make sure I’m not now just train-hungry in general. I also wonder if train sets are even as popular today as they were 30 years ago. Or, for that matter, trains. “Unstoppable” features a school field trip in which kids get to ride a train. Is this even exciting for them anymore? I bet after seeing this movie it would be, if they thought it possible the thing could become a runaway train (great, now I have Soul Asylum in my head).
I guess “Unstoppable” isn’t really a kids movie. It’s rated PG-13, not that this would stop anyone younger than 13 from watching. But could it have been more of a movie for kids, given that it’s as much a movie adapted from the appeal of toy trains as it is from the true story that inspired it? We don’t need to imagine it so G-rated that it looks like “Thomas the Tank Engine,” but a PG version might not have lost the opening weekend box office to “Megamind,” either. Or, is the fact that it’s like a action movie version of train sets more appealing to adults — adults like me today and those fathers of 30 years ago, whom the toys were really for?
The idea of this film being like toy trains and not simply a movie about actual trains comes about for me through both what’s on screen and what got it onto the screen. First, there are so many shots of track, how they’re connected and how they are laid out over bridges and through different landscapes, and much of this is compiled out of locations that I assume were not in fact as linked up as they appear in the film. But even if they do follow a path of authentic track layout, the set-pieces we see are obviously the more interesting parts, such as the climactic bridge and elevated curve. That’s the sort of construction we prefer in designing train set track layouts. Or so I’ve always imagine in my train-set-wanting brain.
Much of the time I was watching “Unstoppable” I kept wishing for an overhead view of the track layout as it exists in the film’s plot. Either a map or an actual satellite view. Of course, that can’t be possible if the locations used aren’t actually connected. Anyway, as much as the movie is somewhat, sometimes narratively unclear, literal mapping would also take away from the suspense that comes from not knowing how close things and locations are to each other. Still, for people who like crashing their toy trains as part of the fun of train sets, there is certainly an appeal to having a birds eye view of the whole scenario. At times we get some minor map work in the control room with Rosario Dawson’s character, who is in a way the only character we really need to identify with. She’s like the train set operator. There’s no reason to care about any other characters other than the trains themselves. Seriously, it would have been fine if Denzel Washington had really gone through and left the production.
If the layout of the track seen in the film is indeed faked it fits with the overall exaggeration of “Unstoppable,” which I would also consider a kind of adaptation of the old 3D board game “Topple.” Obviously it’s not a literal translation, but if you follow how the movie’s screenplay stacks upon the real, true-life incident of CSX 8888, embellishing as much as possible (it’s worth noting that in real life the heroes were an industry vet and a relative rookie, though not on his first day) without going overboard and — umm, toppling the believability of the story — the analogy is, I think, appropriate. You can check out a comparison of the true story and the movie’s version at the Toledo Blade. The only part of “Unstoppable” that might teeter too much and almost topple is when the throttle moves out of place, seemingly magically as if from one of the less-acceptable moments in a “Final Destiny” film.
I think 20th Century Fox missed a good opportunity for merchandising with this movie. What other grown men trying to hold onto their childhood wouldn’t want an “Unstoppable”-branded train set? Just me? As for the kids version of the movie. It’d probably look something like the opening of “Toy Story 3,” seen below. More imagination, and here the kids are on the runaway train.