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Rocky Mountain Express (2011)

A history of the nation's first transcontinental railway accompanies a steam-train ride through the Canadian Rockies.

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A history of the nation's first transcontinental railway accompanies a steam-train ride through the Canadian Rockies.

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30 September 2011 (Canada)  »

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The mountain journey of Canadian Pacific 2816
21 April 2012 | by See all my reviews

In "Rocky Mountain Express" we follow Canadian Pacific 2816 (The Empress), a restored steam engine from the 1930s, along the CPR line through the mountains from Vancouver to Calgary in summertime. The viewer is treated to close-ups of the train's operation and views of the stunning landscape, consisting mostly of pristine mountains, passes and river valleys.

The film includes remarkable aerial photography of the train and the mountainous terrain through which the railway line passes. The IMAX thrill comes mainly from the aerial images, with the highlight being the fly-bys over the mountain tops. Interesting graphics are also shown occasionally to help the viewer map the geographic location and layout of the track. The movie included a rather nice rendering of "500 Miles" (an old Peter, Paul and Mary song).

Along the journey we're told the history of the construction of the track in the 1880s. This is illustrated by huge close ups of a number of remarkable old photographs. We're also shown the locations of other important historical events connected with the CPR line. The film succeeds in conveying how the construction of this railway was an engineering feat and an important event in Canadian history.

The film also shows how much human endeavour was involved. The only characters in this film -- apart from a few shots of the driver and maintainers -- are those in the close ups of the old photographs: the silent faces of the men posing in the wilderness. When blown up to IMAX proportions, those photos take on a life of their own.

The structure of the film is geographical: we follow the train as it travels from west to east. Along the way we're shown and told one tantalising and surprising thing after the next, mostly about the track's construction. In the end this film is merely a visual introduction to a huge subject. The focus is on the romance of the steam train, the beauty of the natural landscape and the old photographs, themes that can be shown well in IMAX and are suitable to all viewers.

By the end I had a lot of questions and wanted to know more, especially about the stories of the people involved. But this is only a 60 minute IMAX movie I suppose. It's up to other Canadian writers and filmmakers to explore these stories in more detail.

An enjoyable experience. Some IMAX films can be a little boring, but this is not one of them.


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