An illustrated analysis of the seven attempts to stop the runaway train in the movie Unstoppable
In the first attempt, the train engineer runs to catch the train as it slowly pulls away - just barely failing to get back on. This is a good scene, complete with a fat guy trying as hard as he can "Chris Farley" style. They still think the train is just "coasting" at this point but we the movie audience know that it is not a "coaster" so the tension is building. These opening scenes are good for establishing a sense of realism - this train is not a toy, it's big and mean. It's not the same train from that horrible Steven Seagal movie which defies the laws of physics and common sense, this train means business and the people who use them know all sort of cool train lingo, like "coaster".
The same fat engineer and his conductor try to get on the train from a pickup truck driving along side. They almost make it but a sign smashes the truck door off. This method looks reasonable and you do wonder why they don't try again, but there is mention of "running out of road" and he was using the door to lean out, so it's somewhat reasonable that they should try something else. Still, we get the uneasy feeling that the train guys are like Wylie Coyote - instead of sticking with a method that almost works until they get it right, they're going to escalate to ridiculously more foolish stunts. This would be fine were the movie not wrapping itself in the guise of gritty realism. We're supposed to be seeing into the "world of trains" - this movie is "based on a true story" after all not "Too Fast Too Furious: Train Edition".
The train company boss decides that instead of derailing the train he will use another engine to slow it down slightly and then a helicopter will lower a soldier (for some reason) onto the runaway train. The other engine goes ahead of the train and tries to break making the train slow slightly. We know that this method is doomed to fail because the tough but cute female train dispatcher thinks it's "crazy". The boss, it turns out, is only thinking of the bottom line! WE hate the boss! His ideas are going to SUCK! Screw corporate America and hooray for the little guy!
Of course the soldier is knocked unconscious and the lead engine gets flipped for some not very well defined reason and the engineer dies. We get the correct impression that at the end of the movie when everyone is celebrating nobody will remember that this guy is dead, even though Denzel gets all chocked up about it for a few seconds.
Here's two problems - the soldier ALMOST made it, why not try again? But more problematically, once you have an engine in front of the runaway train why not just hop from the back of the lead engine to the engine of the runaway? Dangerous perhaps, but way safer than the helicopter method for sure.
The Boss decides (finally) to derail the train which is now a BAD idea, according to our train dispatcher, because it's in a semi-populated area. The derailment method is to clamp metal dohickies onto the track which will ramp the train onto it's side. Denzel does not think this will work because the runaway is going too fast so he begins to chase after the train in his own engine much to the chagrin of the evil boss (see attempt 5).
The derailment site is just odd. They have the dohickies on the track all right but the area where the train is to crash is filled with cops and people. It's as if nobody expects it to work, even though these are the very people that are supposed to be convinced that it will. Of course Denzel is correct and the train smashes through the derailer dohickies and keeps going, which is lucky because otherwise thousands of cops, firefighters and media people would have died. Maybe in an earlier draft of the screenplay there was a subplot where the local police were running a scam whereby the train company would have to buy them new squad cars to replace the old demolished ones? In any case this is a really strange mistake because you'd think that scenes of trying to evacuate people would add some tension.
Admittedly I'm no train expert, but were I to be tasked with derailing a train I would simply take up a section of the track. No track , no train - easy peasy. Oh, and I'd yell, "Everyone stand the fuck back because this is absolutely going to fucking work and derailing trains are fucking dangerous". Did I mention that the train is supposed to have nasty deadly chemicals on board? Everyone should be 10 miles away, not 10 yards. You might ask, "but where would they get the equipment necessary to take up the track", and I'd counter that if they can get specialized train derailers, they can get a bulldozer or a stick of dynamite.
Of course this kind of logic will abruptly end a movie about a runaway train, but they have to come up with some sort of reason why they can't do this.
Denzel and this other guy are now chasing the train in their engine in the hopes of catching the train and slowing it down by pulling from behind before the "big turn" where it will surely derail (in a very populated town this time, so derailing is considered bad by the company boss, the plucky dispatcher and Denzel). This is a long drawn out process: the guy hurts his foot coupling the engine and the train, there is a news helicopter flying too close, there's an "expert" in the control center - it's all very dramatic. The whole process takes a big chunk of the movie and is supposed to be super tense but you know it works because every commercial and trailer featured the scene where the train MAKES IT AROUND THE CORNER. Facepalm. So yes, they slow the train just enough that it barely makes it around the bend (on two wheels no less) but the brakes on Denzel's engine fail and the train starts picking up speed again.
Another small problem - the length of this train keeps changing. At the start of the movie it's "half a mile long" but the whole thing seems to round the bend in about 6 cars. It's a weird and annoyingly unnecessary continuity error.
Once the engine and the train are coupled why doesn't Denzel simply walk the length of the train and turn off the engine? This is a brilliant idea and it generates some cool "Denzel runs on a train" footage. Unfortunately there is a gap too large to jump and this attempt fails. Again there are two problems: this should have been the first thing they thought of, and they should have had someone in the helicopter giving him a heads up that it wasn't going to work in the first place.
In general the helicopters are not helpful in this movie. They either represent the media and are pests, or they are tools of the stupid company boss. Instead the dispatchers rely on "eyes on the ground" calling in on their cell phones. People keep yelling things like "HOW DO YOU LOSE A TRAIN?" but they never attempt to answer their own question. My question would be "How is it that every train engine does not have a GPS unit? They cost about 50 bucks and one would think they'd come in VERY fucking handy in day to day operations, let alone a disaster."
So how do they finally stop the train? They jump to the engine from a moving truck. Yup, they all of a sudden decide that attempt 2 is worth repeating only this time the guy jumps from the BACK of the truck. Genius.
It did occur to me that now that the train is safely around the killer bend why don't they just let it go until it runs out of gas? But if simply jumping onto the train is going to work then who am I to complain.
I know that this is a popcorn movie and the argument goes "don't over-think it, just go along for the ride" but when they get stuff this wrong it's maddening. I'm not picking holes in the shitty character development and contrived back-story (Denzel's teenage daughters work at Hooters) I'm picking holes in the one part of the movie that should be the strongest. As a viewer I want to say "cool look how hard it is to stop a runaway train" not "These people are morons who seem to be avoiding the obvious solution on purpose".
If as film makers and story writers you can't figure out how to do that then, well, you should find another profession or just figure it the fuck out.
Or send me your scripts, I'll fix them for you.