Back on the Alaska train after 29 years – does it run as well as it used to?
Does the name “Runaway Train” tell you something? No? You’re probably not alone.
Isn’t it strange how quickly a movie falls into oblivion? Runaway Train was by no means a small and obscure movie when it came out in 1985. According to Wikipedia it did pretty well at the box office. Jon Voigt received a Golden Globe award for his performance and it was nominated for three Academy awards. Roger Ebert gave it a four star review. It certainly didn’t pass unnoticed. I watched it around the time it came out, and while I had forgotten about the details over the years, it has lingered in my memory as one of the best movies taking place on a train.
These days very few seem to remember it and I’ve never seen it mentioned on any top list. When I asked a couple of fellow movie bloggers from US they just barely recognized the title. And those guys are knowledgeable cinephiles! I think the American film critic Michael Philips was right when he appointed it “the most underrated movie of the 80s”.
Safe for a rewatch
When a bunch of Swedish movie bloggers decided to devote this month’s blogathon to movies about trains, Runaway Train was the first one that came to my mind. After almost 30 years (OMG, has it been that long?), I wanted to pay it a revisit to see what it was like.
Would I get a ride as thrilling as I remembered it to be? Would it hold up? I approached it with certain caution, as I do with movies from the 80s. The pace is often a great deal slower than we’re used to these days and there’s something about the music that doesn’t work for me: strange, annoying electronic music that just is too much.
But I needn’t have worried. This one is safe for a rerun and I urge anyone who hasn’t seen it to give it a go.
This is the story: two convicts – one veteran and one youngster – escape from a prison in Alaska in the middle of the winter. They jump aboard a freight train. But soon after, the engineer dies of a heart attack and they find themselves on a train running at full speed, out of control. Meanwhile they’re chased by the security staff from the prison.
It’s a simple plot, but what makes this movie so great is the execution. I’ve seen other trains running wild, but none that feels so absolutely unstoppable. There’s something very real about this monster wrapped in ice and snow, the hostile landscape and the two desperate men clinging to its outside, inches from their certain death. Watching it I couldn’t help asking myself if all the wonders of modern technology in form of CGI and 3D really have added all that much to the experience. At least in this case, I doubt they could do it any better today. That’s also why I keep my fingers crossed that this movie won’t catch the attention of the people who search the 80s for movies to make again. Runaway Train mustn’t be touched. I can’t see how anyone could make it better today – or even as good. Who could replace Jon Voight as the older villain for one thing? Impossible.
Finally I need to mention the ending. I won’t reveal it here, in case you haven’t seen the film, but it’s just beautiful, one of those endings that send you chills along the spine for its emotional impact combined with cold perfection. See and learn, aspiring filmmakers wherever you are! This is how you do it.
There’s a great deal more to say about this movie, but I found someone who said it so much better than I possibly could. I urge you to read this article by Graham Daseler at Bright Lights Film Journal. Apart from a great analysis, it’s also got a lot of information about the making of the movie, including some snippets from interviews with the director Andrei Konchalovsky, such as those samples:
You have to be an optimist to make a film about trains.” director Andrei Konchalovsky states. “Working with trains was very difficult, dangerous, and complicated. The engines were an enormous amount of steel, very difficult to stop, and treacherous to work around.”
“”The train is a symbol for whatever you want it to be,” the film’s director, Andrei Konchalovsky, explains.”It can be viewed as a prison because they can’t get out of it, or considered as freedom because they escaped from prison on it, or considered as our civilization running out of control because no-one can stop it.”
However a word of warning is needed: If you’re spoiler sensitive you should wait reading it until you’ve seen the film since it goes into detail about the ending.
Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, US 1985) My rating: 4,5/5
I watched Runaway Train as a part of a the theme of the month of the Swedish film blogging network Filmspanarna Here are links to the other participants..