8 Movies That Couldn't Happen in the U.S. Because Our Trains Suck

Train to Busan
Train to Busan

The United States is car country. And so many movies made here reflect that.

There are tons of roadtrip films, like Little Miss Sunshine, The Blues Brothers, Thelma & Louise, and more. There’s a reason why so many great American films are about people in cars going places and finding themselves on the way.

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Unlike other industrialized nations, we do not have an interconnected cross-country train system that can easily get us from point A to point B. Since the mid 1950s, the country has spent almost $10 trillion on roads and highways, yet agencies have only invested a quarter of that on trains and buses. A 2017 Census analysis found that driving to work is much quicker than using public transportation in most U.S. cities, because cars are prioritized.

There’s the Amtrak train system, of course, which is limited in scope and expensive. And there are local train systems, like the MTA in New York City. But in many parts of the country, cars and flights are the only reliable way to get anywhere.

Other parts of the world are marvelously well-connected by rail. Europe has so many train options that, at the end of 2022, the European Commission approved a decision to ban short flights in France, so long as there is a convenient train route that connects the two locations. In Japan, Shinkansen bullet trains rapidly and comfortably carry passengers between cities across the country.

And all those trains make great dramatic settings. These movies are fun watches, but they would never take place in the U.S. Warning: some spoilers ahead.

Bullet Train (2022)

BULLET TRAIN - Official Trailer (HD)

Determined assassins board a fast-moving train. When they’re not fighting, the various killers get to travel in style and comfort. There’s a pretty funny action scene where the protagonist, Ladybug, and his attacker are shushed for being too loud on the train’s quiet car.

As the movie’s name suggests, the characters are on a bullet train, or Shinkansen. These trains travel over 300 kilometers (almost 200 miles) per hour. The length of Japan fits along the U.S. East oast, but it is so much better connected than those states are.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Before Sunrise (1995) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

A young American named Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train in Europe. They pass the day together in Vienna and spend an entire night talking and getting to know each other. Jesse has to catch a flight back to the U.S. the next day, while Celine plans to take the next train back to Paris when he leaves.

Could a similar romance spark up in the parking lot of a failing mall or in freeway traffic? Maybe. But would it be as magical as this? Hell no.

Train to Busan (2016)

Train to Busan Official Trailer #1 (2016) Yoo Gong Korean Zombie Movie HD

A father and daughter hop on a train from Seoul, Korea down to Busan. Unbeknownst to them, one of the passengers is infected with a zombie virus. They bite another passenger, and the virus begins to spread quickly throughout the train. It’s a must-see for zombie horror fans.

The convenience of the train system in Korea makes the broad cast of characters plausible: There’s a group of teens on a school trip, families on their way to see relatives, a wealthy businessman—all brought together on this doomed journey.

Lion (2016)

Lion Official Trailer 1 (2016) - Dev Patel Movie

This movie is about how trains can take you far away from home, and eventually bring you back. Saroo was born in India and accidentally fell asleep on a train as a child. He ends up miles and miles away from his home. He’s taken to an orphanage and then adopted by an Australian couple. Saroo doesn’t remember a lot about his old life but eventually tries to find where he’s from. The film was inspired by the real story of Saroo Brierley.

It’s fascinating to watch how Saroo uses Google Maps and Google Earth to look along train routes in India for years, until he eventually finds a familiar route and landmarks that spark his memory.

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The Official Trailer for The Darjeeling Limited

This Wes Anderson film features three brothers who are trying to reconnect after their father’s death. One brother convinces the others to take a long rail trip in India. Stuck in a beautifully decorated train car together, they squabble and fight as they travel through glorious landscapes. You wouldn’t get those views on a plane ride.

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer Official US Release Trailer #1 (2014) - Chris Evans Movie HD

After governments try to fight the climate crisis through an ill-conceived geoengineering scheme, they accidentally usher in a new ice age that forces all of humanity to rush onto a huge train in hopes of surviving. Regular people who could only afford tickets for the back of the train live in cramped, squalid quarters, while the wealthier group lives in luxury toward the front of the train.

Scientists and governments have been taking geoengineering more seriously—despite the many risks—and hopefully tales like Snowpiercer encourage the appropriate caution. Hopefully, this ice age scenario doesn’t occur in real life, but it was nice to see that it was a huge train—and not an SUV—that saves humanity.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge aka DDLJ (1995)

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - Trailer (with English Subtitles)

Thanks to several friends, I learned that this movie is a Bollywood cult classic.

In one of the ending scenes, Raj leans out of a train and holds his hand out to Simran, who’s running alongside it. She finally grabs his hand and he helps her onto the train, which trundles into the sunset. They live happily ever after.

If someone were to reach their hand out of a Toyota Camry to help me in... well, it’s not quite the same vibe. But if someone were to do that on public transit? Instant future spouse potential.

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)

5 Centimeters Per Second Trailer

This anime movie follows protagonist Takaki and his childhood friend Akari. When they’re no longer attending the same school, the pair keep in touch by sending letters. But as time goes on, they grow apart. They decide meet up again as teenagers, and Takaki has to figure out a train route from his city to Akari’s location. A snowstorm disrupts their reunion, and they end up spending the night together near a train station. There’s a bittersweet moment when they must head back to the platform and go their separate ways—ah, young love.

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