Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” is a more sharply focused, more emotionally touching, and more technically impressive film than his 2008 Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” a trashy (mishmash of a movie) feature that was enjoyable.
It goes without saying that “127 Hours” is one of the best films of the year, an effective work of art that reaffirms our belief in the future of humanity as well as our belief in the future of cinema as the most visceral, immediate, and powerful medium among the arts.
In the hands of another director, “127 Hours” could have easily become just a freaky gut-wrenching horror show. By now it’s no secret that in the climax, Aron Ralston, the film’s hero—and he is a hero no matter how you define the term—decides to cut off his arm with a blade.
But Boyle, an eclectic director known for his penchant to combine different visual styles, shapes the story into a dynamic, serio-comic narrative without neglecting the more serious themes. The humor in the film derives from its central character that’s goofy, active, even arrogant, a guy who enjoys being alone. In fact, he told no one of the exact location of his adventure and even ignored a message that his mom had left for him. Ralston likes to be–and feels he is–in control, which becomes one of the film’s ironies, when he realizes that he’s beginning to lose control and that his meager resources are quickly dwindling.
The humor also stems from the director’s vision: For Boyle, “127 Hours” is not a dark or grim exploration of “Man Versus Nature,” or an essay about survival in a situation of complete isolation. He approaches the story as an existential comedy that’s replete with ironies.
Among other things, “127 Hours” deals with elemental issues that most viewers can relate to, namely, what are we willing to do and how far are we wiling to go in order to survive?
With all the praise for Boyle's bravura helming, it should be pointed right away that it’s impossible to imagine the film without the gifted and versatile James Franco, who gives an astoundingly powerful performance, one that should easily garner him his first Oscar nomination, perhaps even win the award itself. (Franco is about a decade older than the character he plays, but he looks younger than his age).
The true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston was first published in 2003 as a memoir aptly titled "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." Not surprisingly, it quickly became a best-seller with many Hollywood producers knocking on its door. Ralston's remarkable adventure, adapted to the screen by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (who has also scripted “Slumdog Millionaire”), depicts in a viscerally emotional way how he saves himself after a falling boulder crashes on his arm.
What exactly happened?
On a Friday night in April of 2003, Ralston, then 26, drove to Utah to spend the weekend hiking in the stunningly gorgeous and remote CanyonlandsNational Park. Six days later, he emerged to recount
a most remarkable tale of survival, an unforgettable story of human strength in the face of adversity.
Spanning five days, “127 Hours” describes in horrifying–and horrific—details how Ralston battles Nature's elements as well as his own innermost demons to finally discover enormous courage. In the course of the saga, Ralston extricates himself by using all the necessary means, which include descending a 65-foot wall and hiking over eight miles before being finally rescued.
The narrative unfolds as an adventure of the highest order, one which is both external and internal. Indeed, “127” has two dimensions: the physical and the metaphysical.
The film depicts in an unflinching mode Ralston’s exterior acts as well as personal feelings during a sudden, extreme moment of reckoning. It shows how digging deep into himself he finally finds the will to hang on, that is, to reengage with life.
What enriches the narrative structure, which is essentially spare and minimal, is a series of subjective memories and voice-overs. In one of these, Ralston observes, “What do you do when you’re stuck, fucked, and out of luck.”
Throughout his journey, Ralston recalls friends, family, lovers (Clémence Poésy), and the two hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) he had just met before the accident.
Ralston survives the harrowing 127 hours in the wilderness with his hand pinned by an immovable fallen boulder, and with scant food and mere drops of water. Initially, his situation seems completely desperate and utterly unbearable. Yet ultimately he is able to escape it through an act of incredible bravery.
As a director, Boyle sees something special in Ralston’s inspirational story, an opportunity to forge a groundbreaking first-person cinematic experience that immerses the audience in every emotionally charged second, every fantasy and dream, every memory and regret as Ralston moves from grim despair and helplessness to emotionally touching renewed commitment to life, leading him to do what seems impossible.
In the film, the highly subjective camera gets under Aron’s skin and into his head during the most urgent life-or-death circumstances, and it does so in an ultra vivid and realistic way that no other medium could. Two distinguished cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle (who shot “Slumdog Millionaire”) and Enrique Chediak (“28 Days Later”), should be given credit for the visually inventive techniques that are used to recreate Ralston’s full range of experiences. Production and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, editor Jon Harris, and composer A.R. Rahman contribute to the making of a uniquely cinematic work, which is viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying.