Few large-format films are as lyrical as Rocky Mountain Express. Writer/director Stephen Low goes light on the didactics and lets his audience lose themselves in the romance of the rails.
These particular rails are the pride of Canada, and Low doesn’t let you forget it. He implies that Canada as we know it wouldn’t have been possible without the successful construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which seems like a reasonable claim and also one that Low doesn’t trouble himself to defend at any length in the 45-minute film, which premiered in 2011 and opens today at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omnitheater.
There’s also some poignant mention of the men who built the railroad in the 1880s, many of them Chinese, their lives claimed at the rates of several per mile over the most difficult stretches. Low doesn’t delve too deeply there, either: some lingering shots of locomotives that long ago crashed in mountain passes suffice to remind us of how quickly and violently death can come when you’re trying to drag thousands of tons among the continent’s craggiest peaks.
We get to know one of these mighty machines up close. The Hudson steam locomotive 2816 is a 1930 machine that was newly renovated when Low began his five-year filming process in 2006. Low uses the power of his IMAX cameras to give us a generous taste of the overwhelming power of this steam-powered engine, which we see from so many intimate angles that it almost feels invasive. A view looking right up at the prow of the mighty vehicle, coupled with the Science Museum’s projection and sound system, gives you a sense of what it might feel like to be Indiana Jones, hanging onto a cow-catcher for dear life.
Those views from and of the train are coupled with glorious sweeping shots that zoom around and above the train as it makes its way through the stunning Canadian landscape, often captured as autumn leaves swirl through the air. Even Omni vets will feel their stomachs drop a few times as Low’s copter-mounted cameras fly out over the misty peaks and look down at those treacherous valleys.
There are also computer-generated views, which serve the helpful function of demonstrating the fundamental challenge of the railway builders: they had to get the rails through the mountains without ever creating a grade the locomotives couldn’t climb. That forced them to resort to strategies including detours, bridges, trestles, and tunnels — including, most famously, the Spiral Tunnels that took trains into the mountains for the sole purpose of giving them more mileage to gradually crawl higher, crossing over their own paths as they went.
Aside from conveying the ingenuity of the railroad builders, Low takes a gratifying amount of time simply to bask in the ride. You can lose yourself in the plume of smoke emerging from the engine as it powers past a lake, reflected in the surface; or as it churns out of a station, pistons straining just to force the massive bulk into motion. Once it’s running, though, it flies — and the film flies with it.