There is a miniscule crack in the world, in Utah, called Blue John Canyon. There was a rock there, hanging precariously, waiting geological eons for outdoors adventurer Aron Ralston. He climbed over the rock while hiking in April 2003, knocking it loose and causing him to fall into the crevice, where the rock pinned his arm against the canyon wall.
Ralston was trapped in this tiny place in the desert for five days. His plight is the basis for the film 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later...) and starring James Franco.
127 Hours starts with Ralston driving fast to loud music on his way into the desert interior where he will begin his adventure. In the wild, he sets off on bicycle, riding hard, jumping over obstacles. He takes a spill and, lying on his back, takes a picture with his digital camera. He's having fun.
Boyle split-screens the action as Ralston treks across the wilderness, constantly in motion. With headphones on and blaring, Ralston can't hear anything except his playlist.
Ralston is no Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild, who goes off the grid to see nature and find himself. Ralston, instead, is a thrill-seeker. Before striking out on his hike, Ralston didn't tell anyone where he was going or when he could be expected back. When he gets stuck, he knows no one is coming to his rescue.
When Ralston is first trapped, the film is at its most fascinating, a survival procedural. He takes stock of what he has and tries different methods to free his arm. He fashions a harness so that he can sleep. He wets his contact lenses and puts them back in. When he runs out of water, he drinks urine.
Ralston also imagines mundane versions of everyday events. He daydreams about going to a party with the girls he met. He revisits loves and breakups. As he loses his tether to rationality, the film deploys a mixed media of reality, hallucination, and memory.
Ralston recorded some of the events on his camcorder, recreated for the film, including what he thought was his last will and testament. Through its lens, we see Ralston remorseful and apologetic.
These scenes find the film at its most moving but also it's most frustrating. Boyle is a hyperkinetic filmmaker, and he doesn't show much restraint in 127 Hours. As Ralston excoriates himself over his hubris, a laugh track accompanies his pain. This, like occasional visual asides such as water coming through a straw or shots of inside the camcorder, doesn't serve the story.
And, at 94 minutes, the film simply isn't long enough to properly put the audience in the hole with Ralston. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, you feel hot and thirsty. Watching Alive, you feel cold and hungry. 127 Hours is not similarly immersive.
Ralston survives by amputating his arm with a dull blade. The infamy of the climax does a disservice to the film, in many ways. The overweening emotion for those in the know is creeping dread, waiting for the ultimate, gory liberation. The scene itself is expertly managed and gruesomely anatomically correct.
127 Hours is recommended on the basis of Franco's performance and about 60 percent of Boyle's effort.
Opening Friday, January 28th
Studio on the Square