Thursday, November 18, 2010

New Film: Unstoppable

With his 2006 masterpiece Déjà Vu, Tony Scott, the much-maligned "action hack director" of such blockbuster-mode entertainments as Top Gun (1986), Crimson Tide (1995) and Man on Fire (2004), produced  a work of mainstream Hollywood cinema that had as much insight into the contemporary, post-9/11, post-Katrina American spirit as any film released in the past decade.  Combining these two tragedies with a third, Oklahoma City-style act of domestic terrorism, Déjà Vu provided a means by which the film's unsolved composite trauma could be undone by the efforts of law enforcement lead Denzel Washington.  In Scott's science-fiction narrative, time-travel presented this opportunity, with an ostensible tool of surveillance in fact acting as a means of bringing the past into physical proximity with the present (and thus allowing for Washington's return to the scene of the New Orleans crime, before it had occurred).  In this way, Déjà Vu eschewed Bush-era concerns regarding the defensibility of preemptive action, opting instead to engage only with the traumas themselves, for which the film would offer a momentary, virtual form of psychic relief.    

Unstoppable (2010), Scott's latest from a Mark Bomback screenplay, continues in the post-9/11 and Katrina vein of the 2006 work, albeit from source material based on true events - the immediately pre-9/11, "Crazy Eights" runaway train incident of northwestern Ohio.  Shifting his narrative to a present-day fictional set of small and mid-sized rural western Pennsylvania communities, in an area not far from the actual crash site of United flight 93, Scott re-conceives his subject in view of the 2001 act of terrorism, with the film's mode of transport described as a "missile" by Rosario Dawson's highly skilled yardmaster Connie Hooper.  Carrying toxic chemicals and heading unmanned at very high speeds toward the population center of Stanton, PA, following prior human error at the rail yard, Washington and Chris Pine's railroad engineers, Frank Barnes and Will Colson, voluntarily risk their lives in an effort to prevent mass civilian casualties.  In so doing, the film's leads emerge as post-9/11 era domestic heroes, preventing the further loss of innocent American lives on its native soil.  Though again the film's non-fiction source precedes that aforementioned September Tuesday morning, the film's re-situation in the present moment suggests not only a shadow history of heroic action and terrorism-prevention in the years since, but also reminds its spectator that the 9/11-era has yet to conclude.

Hence, whereas Déjà Vu presented a scenario whereby a traumatic history might be revised, Unstoppable depicts the prevention of further tragedy.  Or, to put it another way, the former deals with the past and the second with the present - with a second 9/11 or Katrina-style disaster being prevented in both films.  Of course, Déjà Vu's science-fiction scenario insures that the past is not simply engaged from a point in the present, as Washington and company do as they view the past brought near through that film's meta-cinematic "Snow White" (surveillance) technology, but that it is engaged moreover as a second present, from a position within.  In this way, as this writer has argued previouslyDéjà Vu introduced two forms of diegesis: the video-gaming inspired viewer-activated form that presents itself in the film's present-tense, and a classical, impenetrable formulation that comes to supersede the first when Washington's Agent Carlin travels back in time, immersing himself in the world of four days past. Unstoppable, by comparison, relies strictly on the latter classical-style conceptualization of fictional space, with its heroes located in a world not subject to Déjà Vu's viewer-activated space, which cannot be impacted from the outside, as can be the past in Déjà Vu.  Instead, Unstoppable registers a single present that only those inside the world can affect.

Then again, Unstoppable does not lack Déjà Vu's profusion of images and screens, which in the latter look into a world of the past, brought near by an enormous expenditure of energy, and through a technology that greatly resembles Google Earth.  In fact, both remain quite prominent in Unstoppable, with Hooper manning a control center that might have been lifted from the 2006 film or from the director's previous, lesser, though still authorially notable Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009).  In Unstoppable, the film's high-def monitors and unending streams of video footage not only present CCTV-style constant surveillance, but much more explicitly signal the current method of broadcasting breaking news events, both on twenty-four hour news outlets and on most local affiliates (as well as the large number of broadcast options and information alternatives).  Scott in fact cuts to a pair of separate local news reports periodically as he alternates between an immersion-based presentation of the action, and its coverage on a pair of Pennsylvania stations - from which Hooper and others frequently get their news as events unfold.

Indeed, Unstoppable  presents a world in which major events are captured on-screen from a near ubiquitous number of sources and angles, which are limited not only to the aforementioned broadcast networks, but also include crowds filming events as they happen on their cell phones, which Scott highlights in one particularly noteworthy long-shot. Unstoppable in this regard re-conceptualizes the surveillance-style footage of Scott's masterpiece to reflect the way in which most Americans consume breaking news stories, with events streaming on a variety of networks and platforms, and with private videos shared by on-the-scene amateurs.  Unstoppable is thus a work of its imagistic moment, and may even retrospectively provide a hermeneutic key to the director's earlier surveillance-obsessed work.

Unstoppable is also exceedingly a film of surfaces, both those of the flat screens that transmit the broadcasts, and also those that in some respect filter the images, such as the constant transparent surfaces that come between the camera and the performers.  In these many images, such as the frame reproduced at the outset, Scott manages to maintain moment-to-moment visual interest - not unlike one of the best-looking productions on cable television today, the Scott-inspired "White Collar" on the USA Network - while also reminding his viewer of the barrier between apparatus and subject.  The world of Unstoppable is foremost a filmed world, a world that is constantly and ubiquitously mediated, though not exactly manipulated in the sense of the earlier film.  If Déjà Vu indeed presented a filmed and viewed world within its world, Unstoppable re-frames the object of surveillance as the world of today.

Scott's Rust Belt-situated film also reflects America's present day socio-economic reality, with African American Washington's twenty-eight year railroad veteran facing forced retirement, while Caucasian Pine's low-wage, union trainee - and beneficiary of nepotism - receives assignments over his more qualified co-workers.  (In this way, Scott succeeds in revising subtle racial stereotypes.)   Colson, however, does manage to prove himself in the course of the duo's efforts, thus conferring his value in Scott's extraordinarily Hawksian world - Will indeed shows himself to be "good enough," and thus to be a fit member of Unstoppable's male homo-social group engaged in dangerous work.  In the film's privileging of intuition, practical knowledge and competence, Unstoppable proves a profoundly American work of film art, despite its British helmer.  Then again, Scott's inclusion of Dawson and Kevin Corrigan's Inspector Werner suggests that women and theoretical knowledge likewise have a place in Scott's world, so long, that is, that they prove 'good enough' - an equally Hawksian inclusiveness to be sure.  Less inspired by Howard Hawks, perhaps, though again very much of the moment are Scott's execrable corporate villains, who prove willing to risk lives to save a few dollars.

In sum, Unstoppable may fall short of Déjà Vu's elegant interrogation of various forms of cinematic space, but it cannot be said to lack comparatively in its presentation of the America of its moment.  Unstoppable is indeed vitally of its time, as was the earlier feature, and of its national place of origin (despite Scott's), and for these two reasons alone would qualify among the more notable films of its year.  Of course, Scott's mastery of the music video-brand aesthetic that he helped to invent, decipherable in the film's consistently mimetic use of scoring and sound effects to convey character psychology, and his direction of characteristically fine performances from Washington - himself a master of timing and tone in his delivery of dialogue - and Dawson, among others, only add to the film's already substantial quality.


Anonymous said...

I have to wait until mid-January, unfortunately. I'll give Pelham a rent to tide me over until then. I'm a big supporter of Deja Vu, but outside of that and maybe Domino and Crimson Tide, not a huge Scott fan. At least he doesn't put one to sleep in record time like his brother. Have you seen Tony's really early work? I know BFI have released blu-rays of some of it that I must check out at some point.

Michael J. Anderson said...

I actually wouldn't add so many titles to my own must-see Tony Scott list - "Enemy of the State" surely; maybe "Man on Fire," maybe not. (I look forward to catching up with his debut "Loving Memory" at some point in the not-to-distant future.) Really, what is exhilarating about "Unstoppable" is that it stands closest to the towering "Deja Vu."

Now Ridley, a wasted career...

Anonymous said...

I do perhaps get some auteuristic pleasure out of ideas found in Enemy of the State, and as entertainment in its first part, but when it degenerates into this silly buddy comedy thing with explosions, I admittedly lost interest. I remember feeling guilty watching and enjoying Man on Fire, for reasons I don't know now. Very pleased to hear of Unstoppable's greater worth.

Ugh, indeed. Alien, Blade Runner, then nothing.

Lance McCallion said...

Top Gun is an absolutely wonderful movie. Indulgent, sure, but emotionally and viscerally raw, a very alive piece of filmmaking. It's kitsch but thrilling, visually and narratively. Love it to death. Crimson Tide is strong as well, though not as cinematically exciting, personally. The Hunger is beautiful, though a bit too much like his brother's work maybe. I'm with Trip regarding Enemy of the State, and I really owe Domino a rewatch. I'm a huge fan of Man on Fire, for reasons more similar to Top Gun than anything else. A bit overbearing at times and indulgent, but absolutely thrilling and vibrant, and I enjoy seeing Denzel's broken man achieve catharsis through brazen violence. The more I think about Unstoppable the more I like it for the reasons Michael points out. Definitely essential viewing.

Chris Clark said...

Excellent review. I watched this last night and was pleasantly surprised. I've only recently become a Tony Scott convert. I'm not convinced he's necessarily great yet, but he's at least interesting and certainly needlessly ignored. Your 3rd paragraph from the bottom in particular struck me as a bit revelatory. I find the parallels you draw between it and Deja Vu to be rather conducive to enjoying and appreciating both films.