Film Review – 127 Hours

As a bass line throbs under a techno beat, quick cuts, bright colors, and extravagant camera angles quickly and immediately introduce us to Aron Ralston, played by James Franco.  In a dash around his apartment he packs supplies for an outdoor adventure, camping trip.  In the background, against the pulsating music, a phone messaging machine plays back a missed call from Aron’s sister.  Within moments we are out the door, down a highway, and headed towards Canyonlands National Park, Utah.  Aron is a mountain climber, and all around outdoor enthusiast.  On vacation, exploring the massive canyons and rock formations the park has to offer, in an unexpected moment Aron is put in a life altering situation.  This is 127 Hours, the new film from Danny Boyle, the director of the Academy award winning film, Slumdog Millionaire.

Based on the non-fiction book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, written by Aron Ralston, 127 Hours chronicles the account of the five days Aron spent in the depths of Canyonlands in May of 2003.  We are introduced to Aron Ralston in a colorful, hyperkinetic way that symbolically represents who Aron is; a fast-paced, extreme living, adrenaline seeking, adventurer.  Aron arrives at Canyonlands, unloads his bike and packed gear, and immediately heads for a destination 20 miles into the park.  Before doing so he comments on the estimated time the journey is calculated to take, according to the guide information, and professes to himself to shave some considerable time off of it.  As he gracefully glides across rock formations and down dirt paths into the canyons we are treated to the glorious wonders of the park as captured beautifully by cinematographers, Enrique Chediak, and Anthony Dod Mantle.

Along Aron’s journey to his destination he comes across two female hikers, Kristi and Megan, played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn respectively.  Aron convinces the girls to join him for some fun around the park.  As he takes them on an unknown and potentially dangerous excursion the wild side of Aron’s character is brought to the surface.  James Franco plays the character of Aron with a sly charisma, both nodding to his childlike innocence to explore life, and to the dangers this aspect of his persona can provide to himself and others around him.  Aron is likeable, and his charm is inviting to the point of persuasion.  Throughout Aron’s trip he videotapes the things he finds worth watching again.  Here he films himself with the girls, filming their moment together, a piece of hope that will come back to play later.

After the girls and Aron part ways, Aron begins hoping throughout the canyons towards his destination.  In an instant Aron’s world changes as he becomes trapped inside a canyon.  At this point, a film built on perpetual motion, works cleverly to maintain the momentum as its main character is stationary for most of the remaining running time.  At first Aron finds clever and resourceful ways to be comfortable, eat, sleep and deal with the weather, but as time progresses his resources as well as his mental and physical faculties begin to wear thin.  It is interesting how, as we witness Aron trapped with no cell phone for communication, the realization it was only a short time ago cell phones were not as common or dependent a device as they are these days, sets in.

Boyle, as director, expertly holds the audience captive to Aron’s situation and the choices he makes for himself.  One of the most impressive moments comes in a single shot when after being trapped, Aron calls for help, the camera pans up and away from him ascending into the sky above, stopping to give us a panorama view of Canyonlands.  In so doing we are shown both the beauty and the alienation that nature can provide.  As Aron’s predicament continues and he descends into despair, Boyle uses quick cut imagery, instantly recalling thoughts, past and present into Aron’s life.  We are never in one place too long, which helps the audience avoid the claustrophobic emotions of the environment Aron is confined to.   Instead Boyle uses the space to align us with Aron’s mental state and the final decision that lies ahead of him.

The movie ultimately climaxes with a moment the audience is intended to be anticipating from an early point.  What surely will be discussed, argued and objectified is this harrowing moment in which no one, not the camera, not the actors, and most importantly not the audiences’ memory shies away from.  The viscera of Aron’s choice are provided on screen stark, unflinching and so honest it is nauseating even in its imagination.  However, it is this length of unimaginable approach that provides an otherwise terse film with a more engaging emotional core, because it is through suffering that compassion lays.

Taking his first credit as co-screenwriter, Danny Boyle delivers a story that is stripped to its bare essentials.  For a movie based on a true story, very little time is spent attempting to define Aron as a person with moments of excessive character building, but instead the time is spent dealing with the facts of the situation presented to him, and letting his actions in them define him.  I for one have a hard time with films based on supposed true stories or events, as it is in the nature of the movie to change and exaggerate events to provide an exciting narrative.  No movie is one-hundred percent accurate or true to the real events it is retelling.  Knowing that, this movie works to provide the watcher with the purest experience it can, the actual event itself.  What everything combines to is a movie that becomes an experience, a jolting, terrifying, yet exciting and uplifting experience.

Final Grade: A


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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