Review: Even Today, ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’ Still Sends Me Running in Terror

Cinema’s evolution has brought with it a litany of technological developments. With the Jazz Singer: sound. The Wizard of Oz: color. The Lord of the Rings: motion capture performances. But not since the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘Arrival Of a Train at La Ciotat’ have filmmakers sent physical matter careening through theater screens and into the audience, sending crowds into a hysterical mass as they try to escape the oncoming doom.

It’s unfortunate that the Lumiere Brothers phoned it in on this one (how many times have a pair of filmmakers simply captured everyday “city life” on camera and called a day?), considering it remains the only film to send a full-sized locomotive barreling through the screen and into the audience. Yet, derivative as it may be, this film still has the power to enrapture audiences with its lifelike immersion and terror-inducing finale.

'Arrival of A Train' is also, at its core, nostalgic: Watching it now, some years later, I can’t help but think back to my Introduction to Film History (1895-1911) course, where I first saw the picture. I could feel myself standing on that platform. I felt the sunshine on my skin; I could hear the metronomic thuds of the machinery as it lurched closer and closer. Its deafening whistle was a warning to stand back as it pulled into the station, but, on account of a sleeping conductor or misaligned brake pad, the train never stopped, triggering a fight-or-flight response in every single student attending the lecture and sending them stampeding for the exits.

This viewing, I still felt the same unadulterated fear for my life that I did in college – only this time, I also felt an immortal solidarity with the film’s original audiences. The major blockbusters and supernatural horror flicks of today are thrilling, sure, but unlike 'La Ciotat,' they lack the capacity to connect their audiences with the first audiences of film history through the pure survival instinct of mortal beings.

Superheroes and demons are exciting, but they are time and again unconvincing in their effort to smash through the screen and kill me.

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat

Short Film
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