The train has stood the test of time as a storytelling device throughout pretty much all of film history. On screen, locomotion can propel narratives forward, providing palpable stretches of suspense. They can also, paradoxically, be used to indicate reprieve. Grace Lee of What’s So Great About That? examines this very conundrum in her video essay Next Stop, Analysis: The Contradictory Trains of Cinema. She collates an array of iconic train sequences and dissects their significance as fictional allegory. Lee’s effective argument spans literature, film, and television, delving into the fascinating multiplicities of the train as a cinematic tool.
At first blush, just listening to Lee explain Spirited Away, Snowpiercer, and Train to Busan within this framework is a massive delight. Those are some of my own favorite films that utilize this motif so poignantly. Regardless of any plot commonalities that may or may not exist between these stories, Lee puts them alongside the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and the works of Charles Dickens, showing the intuitive interchangeability of a great train sequence.
Some of my most cherished films certainly employ the very dichotomy of mystery and respite through the train trope. I can’t think of locomotives without referencing the Harry Potter franchise. Notably, Lee does sneak in an extreme long shot of the Hogwarts Express in her video. However, the implications of the train’s shifting functionality throughout the personal journey of the series’ eponymous protagonist are worth exploring in more detail.
The Hogwarts Express is established as a comfortable location for Harry Potter. When we first board it in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, it truly represents an extension of the character’s freedom from his traumatic childhood upbringing.
The Hogwarts Express takes Harry to a wondrous place beyond his wildest imaginations and lets him immerse himself in the magical world. The fact that this includes indulging in magical sweets and snacks from the train’s food trolley is a total bonus for an 11-year-old boy.
The Hogwarts Express serves as the propitious meeting spot for many of Harry’s life-long friends, too. As depicted in both the book and the film versions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry encounters his best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger on the train ride to school.
Clearly, the Hogwarts Express basically breeds plot progression. The train drives Harry toward his own fate, literally and figuratively. Of course, it only does so for better or worse. Come the series’ third installment, the train begins to look more menacing just as the overarching plot of the franchise darkens.
In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, warmth and comfort are sucked out of the Hogwarts Express once a Dementor comes aboard. The wraith-like creature, tasked to retrieve a murderer with distinct personal ties to Harry, dredges up depressing feelings among his schoolmates and worst of all, forces the boy to relive the terrible memory of his parents’ deaths.
Dread and horror invade a train compartment that had previously represented the calm before the storm of Harry’s tumultuous school years. In Prisoner of Azkaban, the infiltration of the Hogwarts Express strongly hints at the darkness that will inevitably color Harry’s destiny. His future is suddenly uncertain when even his safest spaces are gravely threatened.
In a similarly fantastical example, Inception indicates the conflicting flexibility and rigidity of the train as a motif. We first meet the film’s protagonist, Cobb — excommunicated from his home country and indefinitely separated from his children — on a train ride attempting to steal trade secrets from a Japanese magnate. Cobb deals in corporate espionage via shared dreaming, requiring the significant stretches of time found in modern-day travel in order to extract the information he needs.
This initial supposedly run-of-the-mill job subsequently opens a door for the character’s absolution. But in order to jump-start Cobb’s path of redemption, he has to use the controversial titular method of planting an idea into a target’s unsuspecting subconscious.
The problematic, convoluted nature of this ploy is effectively distilled through the evocative appearances of trains in Inception. They are unstoppable, as demonstrated by a giant freight unexpectedly bursting through one of the dreamscapes during Cobb’s big heist. It disrupts and gravely endangers his crew at work.
Trains also help to personify the nagging issue of Cobb’s existence in identity limbo, linking him closely with his deceased wife, Mal. As they become masters of dream-sharing together, building worlds and growing old in dreamscapes, reality becomes too flexible for the latter.
Cobb attempts to save Mal from rejecting reality by waking her up through invoking the concept of them lying on some tracks, “waiting for a train…that’ll take [them] far away.” In a film where you are “killed” in-dream to awaken in the real world, the locomotive that rumbles toward the pair should symbolize some sort of finality.
Except it doesn’t. Instead, heightened tension sustains itself during subtle and overt deliberations of what’s real and what isn’t in the film, even after Cobb and Mal find themselves in their home. The train motif presents as a neverending loop that encourages characters in the film as well as audiences to mistrust many aspects of the narrative. Inception remains in a state of stasis right until the very end, evoking the uncertain journey of life via the unrelenting force of a train in motion.
In spite of the apparent contrariness of thematic trains, I absolutely enjoy them because they organically add narrative texture and excitement to the stories we love. They are extraordinary spaces that inexplicably elicit both rumination and action, making them the ultimate cinematic device.