'Unstoppable' claims to be inspired by true events, but what Tony Scott's latest action flick really resembles is the much more colorful 1985 thriller 'Runaway Train.' That equally preposterous film at least had a plot, characters that weren't cut from cardboard, and a frigid Alaskan backdrop that added both atmosphere and extra tension to the proceedings. Though Scott's picture supplies plenty of action, some of it heart-thumping, there's little else to engage the mind or emotions. In short, it's a premise movie. Unmanned train loaded with hazardous materials barrels down the tracks at breakneck speed and must be stopped before it crashes into a Pennsylvania metropolis. That's it.
Yes, there are characters. The aging engineer (Denzel Washington) who's been laid off after decades of service (his daughters work at Hooters to help put themselves through school, but that's just tangential, titillating information); the young conductor (Chris Pine) with marital troubles who's resented by the veteran staffers; and the harried railroad controller (Rosario Dawson) who yells at her superiors and underlings, wrings her hands, and watches in horror as the train evades one catastrophe after another. They all perform functions, but their names aren't necessary because they're defined by their generic and totally uninteresting roles. We're supposed to sense some friction between Washington and Pine - you know, the inexperienced young buck squeezing out the old warhorse before his time - but it's a foregone conclusion they're going to join forces in an effort to save hundreds of thousands of innocent souls, and the script gives them just enough time in between crises to let their hair down, open up, and bond.
With no real story, outside of the race-to-the-rescue, risk-life-and-limb angle, 'Unstoppable' makes us feel like we're watching breaking news on CNN or a 'Dateline' after-the-fact documentary. Scott even intercuts plenty of fake Fox News reporting and dozens of shots of TV news helicopters tailing the train to give us that impression. And while the film is never boring - Scott is a talented action director who knows how to keep his audience engaged - it just feels empty. Sure, there are a couple of nail-biting moments and we hope the stars will emerge unscathed, but like the abandoned juggernaut speeding down the tracks, 'Unstoppable' is devoid of humanity. If any movie typifies the mindless action picture, this is it. Now, I enjoy good spectacle and explosions as much as the next guy, but without any intellectual or emotional stimulation even the most well-choreographed sequences fail to deliver the appropriate degree of impact.
Scott compensates for the script's substance deficiency by going overboard with style, undoubtedly feeling that if he overloads our senses, we won't realize our brains and hearts aren't engaged. The film's camera movement is as unstoppable as the train, and over time, all the swooping and panning and jerky zooming become tiresome. Any static shots are a welcome respite and provide us with precious time to recalibrate our equilibrium, as if we've just gotten off an amusement park ride. But before we can fully catch our breath, Scott cranks up the motion once again.
This is Washington's fifth film with Scott, but definitely one of their weaker collaborations. The two-time Academy Award-winning actor has little to do other than grimace and flash a toothy grin. Pine supplies the necessary beefcake, but his is also a one-note portrayal, and Dawson does as much as she can with a thankless role. None of them can outshine the train; they're merely window dressing, and even Washington seems content to relinquish the spotlight and play second fiddle here.
'Unstoppable' promises a wild ride and succeeds in providing just that...and nothing else. If you like your action neat with no strings attached, then this is the film for you. But if you crave a meatier main course - something that will stick to your ribs - then you better feast your eyes on something else.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Unstoppable' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case with slipcase. The two-disc set includes both a BD-50 dual-layer disc that houses the feature film and extras, and a digital copy disc that facilitates the transfer of 'Unstoppable' to portable media. Upon insertion, a digital copy promo and three trailers precede the full-motion menu with music.
'Unstoppable' sports a good-looking 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that enjoys fine clarity and contrast, and lacks any annoying surface defects, such as nicks and scratches. The image can appear a little grainy at times, with mild instances of noise occasionally cropping up, but the texturing seems to be a creative choice to lend a bit of grit to this blue-collar tale. Details are always easy to discern, whether they're in the foreground or background, with elements like water stains on the train's cab windows providing striking accents to the picture. Close-ups are always sharp, but never quite achieve a dimensional look, and even though there's a lot of camera movement, there's very little blurring or instability.
Other than the bucolic Pennsylvania landscapes, there's not a lot of color on display, but the lush greens of fields and trees are beautifully saturated, and the hues of the computerized train map in the control room exude a bold vibrancy that really punches up the drab environment. Blacks are solid, fleshtones look natural, and other than the aforementioned noise, no digital issues (banding, pixelation, edge enhancement, etc.) muck up the works.
All in all, this is another stellar effort from Fox that should look good on any display.
Train movies require some heavy bass action, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track outputs some decent rumbles, as the speeding engine barrels down the rails and whisks by. Squeaks and screeches are also distinct, and test the limits of the audio's dynamic range, yet distortion is never an issue. Other details, such as helicopter blades, exhibit a pleasing crispness, and despite several competing factors, the sound maintains a pleasing fluidity.
Some good stereo separation across the front channels ramps up excitement, but surround activity isn't as prevalent as other action-oriented films. Dialogue, however, remains clear, comprehendible, and well prioritized, despite substantial atmospheric competition. The music score also enjoys fine presence and tonal depth, and fills the room well. Like the video, the audio is strong and will please most viewers, but never approaches reference quality.
The bulk of supplements are high-def exclusives (see below), but a few extras are shared between the Blu-ray and DVD.
'Unstoppable' takes a simple premise and runs with it full throttle, but this taut action flick from director Tony Scott never penetrates our hearts and minds. Cardboard characters and a one-dimensional script keep it mired in mediocrity, and though it's fun enough while it lasts, I can't imagine ever revisiting it. Good video and audio complement the experience, and some decent extras take us behind the scenes, but there's nothing here that raises this generic thriller above a rental.