At its best, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours unravels a complex logic puzzle: you’re suspended in the middle of a desert canyon, your arm is pinned between an immovable rock and the canyon wall, and you have about 600ml of water, a small supply of food, some length of climbing rope, a camera, a camcorder, and a cheap China-made pocket tool with a dull knife (no replacement for a Swiss Army knife, it can’t even cut through flesh – easily, at least.)
What do you do? When do you do it? Would you be able to go through with it?
It’s the fascinating true story of Aron Ralston, a mechanical engineer and adventurer who went hiking (and biking) in the isolated Blue John Canyon, Utah, misjudged the stability of a boulder perched atop a canyon, went tumbling down the canyon alongside said boulder, and found himself in the situation described above.
Even if you’re not familiar with Ralston’s story, the opening credits inform us that the film is based on Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place – presumably, he made it out alive. He screams for help, maybe from the two girls he met earlier – but they’re long gone, and no one else is likely to come by.
He didn’t leave a note, or tell anyone where going. Not smart. No, he’s going to have to get himself out of this situation. There’s a kind of daring and recklessness that got him into this situation, but only someone with these qualities would be able to get themselves out.
Ralston is played by James Franco in a performance that earned an Oscar nomination, and for good reason. For a good three-quarters of the movie, we’re alone with Ralston inside the canyon; it’s a one man show, and watching someone wear down may soon wear on the audience, but the actor always manages to keep things fresh.
Through his actions and personality, Ralston is kept at arm’s length from the audience – surely, we’d like to think, we’d be better prepared – but Franco gives the character a warmth and spirit that endears him to us.
The wonderful soundtrack includes an original score by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) alongside some well-chosen tracks including Free Blood’s Never Hear Surf Music Again (which plays over the exceptional opening credits), Bill Withers’ Lovely Day, and more.
Few directors jump from genre to genre as well as Boyle, from gritty underground drama (Trainspotting) to zombie horror (28 Days Later) to family-friendly fantasy (Millions) to sci-fi (Sunshine) to the Dickensian romance of Slumdog Millionaire. But they’re all trademarked by style and quality, and the intense survival adventure of 127 Hours slides nicely into his filmography.
If I have one gripe here, it’s that there’s often a palpable sense of Boyle trying to “jazz” up the material in two distinct ways. The first is through the (admittedly gorgeous) cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, which makes use of split-screen, wide-angle, and “trick” shots, like from the inside of a water bottle. The second is through fantasy sequences that take place inside Ralston’s head – flashbacks, hallucinations, dreams.
Both of these techniques, to some degree, pull us out of the material. The cinematography reminds us of the filmmaking craft, and of the fact that we’re watching a movie; the fantasy sequences allow us a reprieve from the reality of the canyon (one of them, which provides a false climax, is almost unforgivable).
In 2010’s similarly-themed Buried, we’re stuck with a character inside a coffin for the entire film, and director Rodrigo Cortés is able to generate considerable tension by never leaving the enclosed space (although, 127 Hours is a more satisfying experience overall.)
Mostly, though, I was reminded while watching of Kevin MacDonald’s incredible Touching the Void, a documentary with dramatic reenactments about mountain climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates and their disastrous descent from the Siula Grande in the Andes; Simpson breaks his leg and Yates is forced to cut him loose, yet somehow Simpson manages to make it out alive. It’s an extraordinary film; 127 Hours bears no shame in settling for very, very good.