As entertaining as survival stories tend to be, it seemed implausible that a story about a man trapped for days with his arm pinned under a rock could work as a film. At the very least, it sounded like quite a challenge, but director Danny Boyle was up to it. “127 Hours” is a great, inspiring film that explores the main character and cares about him as much as his predicament.
It tells the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco, in an impressive career peak performance), a twenty-something hiker who got trapped in a crevice in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. A boulder dislodged and crushed his arm against the canyon wall. He didn’t have a cell or inform anybody where he was beforehand, and the rock was too large to move. If you haven’t heard his tale, I won’t spoil it. I will say that after a brief introduction, most of the movie is focused on Ralston’s efforts to free himself. We are trapped with him in the crevice for the duration and witness how he passes the time in (sometimes gruesome) detail.
Boyle keeps the story exciting (and moving) with his kinetic camera, bright color palette, and flashy-but-purposeful editing. His unique visual style is indispensable to film; I can’t imagine another director bringing this story to life. What other director would show the last drop of water being licked out of a bottle shot from inside the bottle’s perspective? Who else would show what’s happening inside Ralston’s body? More than that, who else could so aptly show us the journey Ralston takes inside his mind?
As hours stretch into days, we accompany Ralston on his mental trips outside of the canyon as he recalls everything from formative moments from his youth to a long-term relationship that turned sour. For Ralston, these memories function as brief escapes as he slips into desperation and madness, but for viewers they act as character study that reveal a selfish, overly confident, foolhardy young man. In the midst of all his visual flair and the mechanics of the plot, Boyle never forgets he’s telling a story, and story is about character. All the flash and action serve the story. At one point, Ralston declares the rock has been waiting for him his entire life.
Although he is aided by Boyle’s masterful script and direction, Franco is essentially putting on a one-man show and is tasked with carrying the movie. His happy-go-lucky stoner persona is put to great use, but Franco also has to show a broad range of emotions and mental states and make us invest in his character. He delivers. The subtle make-up effects—from dry, cracked lips to the bags under his eyes—certainly help, too.
And, of course, there are the surface mechanics of the survivalist plot to keep us interested. It’s always entertaining to see how people keep themselves alive in these situations. Ralston has to figure out simple things like how to sleep or keep himself hydrated. I won’t spoil all the fun by listing them all, but one example is Ralston creating a pulley system in attempt to move the boulder. It’s amazing how hard accomplishing these tasks can be when you only have one arm with which to work.
It would make a great blurb if I said the film scared me away from hiking for life. “It does for hiking what ‘Jaws’ did for the beach,” and all that. The truth is I have a growing interest in the hobby, and “127 Hours” fueled that curiosity. Ralston conveys a youthful sense of adventure in the film, and it isn’t crushed by a cautionary tale. The film encourages and embraces that bold, adventurous attitude, and that’s why in the end it’s inspiring. It recognizes that everything is always moving, maybe even that loose boulder. Just hopefully not today.
5 out of 5 stars