Dec 29 2010 2:43pm

“The Cold Equations” in south central PA—being a review of Unstoppable

This is the third in a series of reviews of spec fic by stealth. The rest are here.

Unstoppable film

At first glance, Tony Scott’s Unstoppable might appear to be just Speed on a train. But I submit to you that not only is it a much better movie than SpeedUnstoppable is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in a long time—but that it’s uniquely suited to a science fiction audience. Throughout the film, I found myself comparing it not to Speed, but to Tom Godwin’s legendary science fiction short “The Cold Equations.” Not because Unstoppable revolves around a moral quandary supported by a contrived narrative, but because it sets up its premise and parameters and then follows them ruthlessly to the end.

To wit: a half-mile long freight train weighing in excess of a million pounds and carrying hazardous material is headed for a 15-mph curve in a Harrisberg/Scrantonesque cryptomunicipality in Pennsylvania at 71 miles per hour. Due to human error, the behemoth is unmanned, and the air brakes are not operational.

What do you do?

It seems a bit much, maybe, but the basic premise of the movie is based on a 2001 incident in Ohio, Hollywooded up a little.

We follow the action chiefly from four points of view—that of Barnes (Denzel Washington) a senior engineer on a lesser train that’s on a collision course with the Triple-7 and desperately trying to reach a siding before the runaway reaches it. His conductor is Colson (Chris Pine), a young screwup with too much to prove. The mercurial, hyper-competent station master is Connie (Rosario Dawes), and the old railyard hand who winds up in hot pursuit of the runaway by virtue of being perennially late for for work is Ned (Lew Temple). Between them, these people have a train to catch—and stop, if they can.

There’s no way this isn’t a science fiction premise. It’s all about the intersection of humanity, technology, and the sheer implacability of the laws of physics. This is not a movie about the evils of technology—just the opposite, as every single character in it owes his or her livelihood to the trains. But it is a story about the challenges of managing technology, which is something else again.

Let’s face it: there’s just something about a runaway train. It’s our post-industrial root metaphor for the irresistable force. It’s the largest, most powerful machine that most of us have personal experience with. Trains are awful, in the oldest sense of the word: they inspire awe the same way the opening shot of the Imperial Star Destroyer in Star Wars does.

The Triple-7, the runaway train of the movie’s title, is comparable in size to a Star Destroyer; it’s almost exactly half as long. And it’s shot like a Star Destroyer, or like Kaa in “The Jungle Books”: we never see the whole thing. Its scale is too great; it cannot fit within the limited margins of the screen. It becomes a force of nature, albeit a manufactured one, as it smashes aside obstacles and defeats the best efforts of its puny creators to control, slow, or derail it. 

There is no will behind this thing. Only physics. And physics—the very same inescapable physical logic that caused it to run rogue in the first place—is the only way to bring it down.

I say this is stealth science fiction because of that, but also because the narrative abides by  its own internal rules—which is more than I can say for most big-screen SF, frankly. The train is on a track: there are only so many places it can go—and only so many immovable objects it can interact with.

The real enjoyability of the movie is watching those limited options play out in a number of almost nauseatingly tense encounters between man and machine.

Elizabeth Bear can hear the trains from where she lives, but only when it’s raining.

Stephen Monteith
1. Stephen Monteith
This is (one reason) why I do not subscribe to science fiction being a separate genre. In my mind, there is nonfiction, fiction, and science fiction, each a separate way of telling a story, and within each are the actual genres: mystery, romance, horror, and so forth.
Curtis Chen
2. sparCKL
I was going to skip this flick, but now I'm curious to see how the filmmakers managed to redeem the prima facie ridiculousness of the premise. Well played, Bear. Well played.
Elizabeth Bear
3. matociquala
sparCKL: It really is a lot of fun. Even Ebert liked it!

Stephen: Speculative fiction is weird because it's a genre defined by content as much--if not more so--than by structure. Which means it plays well with other genres. Or at least, that's the way I think of it.
Roland of Gilead
4. pKp
Great, great movie. Didn't think of it as science-fictional, but your points make sense. It's for the same reason, I think, that early Gibson novels (Sprawl trilogy, etc) are so great : they're about human struggling to catch/stop/destroy the "train" of technology.

@3 re: definition of SF : it really can't be defined by structure at all, can it ? I mean, every canonical structure I can think of (epistolary novel, short story, novel, poem, novella, diary...) can easily be science-fiction, can't it ?

Unless I didn't get what you meant by "structure", which is probable as English isn't my main language.
Michael Burke
5. Ludon
I'll see this one but I'm approacing it with the feeling that I've seen it before - because I have. Runaway Train. 1985. Starring John Voight, Eric Roberts and Rebecca De Mornay.

While Runaway Train has the twist of having two of the three prople on the train being escaped convicts, your comments about Unstoppable could be tweaked to fit.
Elizabeth Bear
8. matociquala
Ludon, Runaway Train is a different movie with a similar premise.

PKP, pretty close. I was thinking of various plot structures--mystery, thriller, romance--all of which can be put to SFnal uses.
Mike Conley
10. NomadUK
The first time I read 'The Cold Equations' was in a high school science-fiction course. It's haunted me ever since; and though I've read any number of analyses that purport to show its flaws, I think the people who make those arguments miss — or are desperately ignoring — the fundamental, frightening truth of the story. It really is a great work.

Hard to imagine this film living up to that, but it does sound like a good one. And, hell, it has Denzel Washington in it, so how bad can it be?

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