I went to see UNSTOPPABLE the other day and it was OK, but it was one of those films that made me think of what it could have been. Tony Scott directed it, so you know what you’re going to get. I like his movies, more recent ones especially. He directs action. Things move, and they move fast. Things blow up, and they blow up big. He’s all about energy and speed and action.
Action movies are great, but directors lately are so intent on moving forward, on getting to the next explosion or climax, that they forget to mix some suspense into the mix.
This was glaringly apparent in UNSTOPPABLE because the trains were not the demons of speed that Tony Scott obviously hoped they would be. So rather than embrace the momentum inherent in the premise of his film, he uses every cheap trick in the book to get those trains moving. (Some of them are embarrassingly cheap – like the shot of the train full of kids headed straight for the runaway train, then cut to safely off to the side, which is odd because there wasn’t an exit ramp in the shot before, but whatever, right?)
Suspense needs a little room to breathe and the train’s massive slowness would seem to me to provide a great opportunity. It’s still going at 55, but on film, it’s never going to look like a roller coaster. What’s the premise of this film? It’s a missile the size of the Chrystler Building, right? What difference does it make if it’s not moving at the speed of sound? They can’t stop it! That’s the point.
So a scene when the horse trailer is stuck on the tracks, it shouldn’t just happen and then be over. A scene like that can last 15 minutes, if it’s done right. Give us some time to know where everything is in the scene. Give us some time to see how the characters react to their increasingly tense situation. Get stuff in the way, and then get it stuck there, and then show what’s needed to get it out of there, and then show the train coming, and then they get more stuck, and the train gets closer, etc. You get the idea. Why were they in such a hurry to get done with this scene, anyway? It’s not like they had another cool scene waiting around the corner.
But then I started thinking of all the other films I’ve seen in the last, I don’t know, five years. I couldn’t think of one that was particularly suspenseful, or had any memorable suspense scene. I’m sure I’m forgetting one, but my point is that action movies need to rediscover that central lifeblood of their make up.
Think of the scene of Bruce Willis in DIE HARD, when he’s in the air duct and the blond guy is shooting along the length. It’s suspense. Or in JURASSIC PARK, when they’re waiting for the T-Rex to show up. The rest of the movie was crap, but that was the scene you remember – and it was a suspense scene.
Suspense is the soul of these films because without it, we know the end: the hero lives, saves the day, whatever. There’s never any risk. You never wonder if they’ll make it or not. You need that because with out it, it’s just all the same speed. It’s just one thing after another. Suspense means that we’re invested in the film. I just worry that, in an effort to keep the audience broad, and not upset anyone, they’ve actually decided that suspense in a film is a bad thing.