Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) is one of the most successful and inventive filmmakers to have come out of the U.K in the past two decades, and he’s never been one to play it safe, each of his films strives to be more challenging than the last, and 127 Hours is no different; being based on the true story of Aron Ralston, an American rock-climber and author who was forced to amputate his own arm to escape from under a boulder whilst climbing in Utah.
Ralston (played in the film by Spiderman’s James Franco) is presented as being fiercely individualistic; he lives on his own and spends his weekends driving to the wilderness to mountain-bike, climb and generally run across the landscape, like an excited young puppy; yet his individualism is his downfall, and by not saying where he is going he eliminates the chance of anybody coming to search for him, when something inevitably goes wrong.
Whilst descending into Blue John canyon Ralston dislodges a boulder which crashes onto his right arm, crushing it and pinning him against the wall of the canyon. He is trapped at the bottom of a dark crevasse with a limited supply of water and food, and after some futile attempts to free himself by lifting, smashing and pushing the boulder, he begins to realize that he is trapped in the total wilderness of the Rocky mountains with no-one coming to get him; thus beginning the 127 hours that it will take him to escape.
The next hour of the film takes place in the canyon, with Ralston trying to free himself and survive, and given the confined setting this film could only be made by a director supremely confident in his own ability to use the medium of cinema, and a leading actor who’s able to captivate the attention of the audience for the entire run time of the film; thankfully in 127 Hours, Boyle has an abundance of talent for telling a story visually, and James Franco turns in a wonderful performance.
In fact, Franco’s performance is one the highlights of the film; not only do we suffer with him in his moments of excruciating pain, but he manages to communicate to the audience the subtle nuances of a tortured man through his facial expressions. Luckily for the filmmaker, the real Aron Ralston kept a video and photo diary, which he only showed to his nearest and dearest, but which Franco recreates; allowing the film to establish a direct dialogue with the audience; and whilst talking to the camera, Franco show’s quite a range of acting by coming across as arrogant, aggressive, amusing, touching and tortured. For this, he has to be a contender in all the major awards when the season comes around, and the simple and effective script of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is also worthy of praise.
Boyle manages to make the film more than just about a man trapped under a rock, as Ralston begins to have flashbacks about moments in his life; providing snippets which form the real Ralston’s character, and are skilfully edited and put together in such a way that allow us empathise with a character who initially seemed both arrogant and unappealing.
Hallucinatory sequences often feature in Boyle’s films (becoming something of a trademark for him), and 127 Hours is no different, as he shows his typical flair and panache in this domain; when Ralston begins to run out food and water and begins to hallucinate; imagining the canyon being flooded, and presenting a vision he has of the real Blue John (after whom the Canyon is named), which are the most visually stunning and creative moments in the film.
127 Hours is not for the squeamish; as watching Ralston breaking his arm, re-breaking it, slicing it open with a pen-knife, slashing the nerve and hacking off the rest whilst blood gushes all over his body is obviously no picnic; yet when going to see this film at the cinema, one is filled with a dreadful anticipation of the gory moments to come, but Boyle does a truly impressive job in making the film not just about the arm amputation, but rather about the human issues of relationships with ones peers and family, as well as a more fundamental question of what we are prepared to do to survive.
After his Oscar triumph (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle was afforded much more creative freedom (and far fewer budgetary constraints) for his future projects, and by choosing to adapt the story of Aron Ralston; an initially unlikeable man, who doesn’t move location and mutilates his own body; he’s not choosing the popular option. It would have been simple for Boyle to make his next film a 3D extravaganza with matinee icons, or a nice safe rom-com with Sandra Bullock (Two Weeks Notice), but for making 127 Hours he must be applauded.
But perhaps somebody should have warned Boyle about the perils of making this film; while the direction and acting is superb, it remains a story that is complex and tricky for feature length film, as from the moment the boulder lands on Ralston’s arm it’s a succession of filler sequences (albeit very well crafted ones) until he escapes, and makes for a peculiar 93 minutes in the cinema; it’s like being in a waiting room of a dentist; you know you are about to get something painful done to you, and no matter how good the magazines in the lounge are, the wait seems to last forever.
127 Hours is the best possible film that could have been made from the true story of Aron Ralston; it is an amazing story of survival, and human will against all the odds. It does remain a film that involves a huge amount of waiting for the inevitable; making for a uncomfortable, and at times underwhelming, viewing; but Danny Boyle continues to push the boundaries of filmmaking, and must be considered one the best British director of his generation; his audacity and sheer guts when making a movie makes him stand out from the crowd. At the end of 127 Hours however, despite the uplifting ending, there is a sense of emptiness, and none of the long-lasting positive euphoria that Slumdog Millionaire had in abundance.