127 Hours review
Danny Boyle's follow up to the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire is about as ambitious as any of his other films. It is an adaptation of Aron Ralston's autobiographical account of his ordeal of being trapped beneath a boulder and his eventual arm amputation in order to break free. Not many film producers would think that such a premise would work as a film. After all, how entertaining can it be to watch a man stuck in the same spot for almost an entire movie? That certainly did not stop Boyle, who had this project in his mind for more than four years.
127 Hours begins like the majority of his other directorial efforts, with an energetic opening sequence akin to a music video with a narrative. Aron, played by the talented James Franco, sets off on a hiking & climbing trek to Utah. Once he arrives, the film plays out like an exquisitely photographed tourist commercial for the REI demographic gone wrong. Eye-candy enhances this imaginary advertisement when Aron has a chance meeting with two women played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn. He woos them with his local knowledge and expertise, leaving them wholly impressed. Setting off on his own again, Aron soon has his fateful meeting with his earthly nemesis.
Most of these true life accounts of overcoming environmental adversity often run the risk of becoming too cheesy by the second half of the film, the act when the troubled party starts to make positive progress and the epic music builds up. Due to Danny Boyle's solid directorial resume, I had reason to feel optimistic that he would churn out something more intellectually engaging. If 127 Hours had more Hollywood support, those L.A. producers would have insisted that Boyle give the rock its own personality, perhaps even go as far as having a voiceover (by Dwayne Johnson if you like), taunting Franco mercilessly. Yes, the rock would be very much like the volleyball in Castaway, except in 127 Hours it's a very evil and well-placed rock. It's quite surprising how small the rock actually is, underscoring the unpredictable hazards of rock climbing.
There's an added challenge for Boyle in that similar stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere premises have the convenience of being group situations. In these cases much of the plot development involves how the different personalities deal with the given predicament. As a result, filling 90 minutes to 2 hours is hardly a problem. In 127 Hours, Franco is all that the film has so it's no surprise that this is only 90 minutes. Boyle even takes it a step further by dropping the rock on Franco quite early in the film; a less confident director would have waited a little longer in order to extend the movie.
To help pass the time through these many days, the viewers gets to see into Aron's hallucinatory mind as he is deprived to nutrients. He not only reflects on his often charmed past, but also has premonitions of the future both of which help in his motivations for survival. His plight is prolonged due to his irresponsibility of not letting anyone know where he went, a result of his self-involved nature and something that he later acknowledges wholeheartedly.
There are also a couple lulls in the pacing due Aron's solitude, though it's easy to argue that it was the objective. If you are stuck alone for that long of a period, of course there will be periods of boredom. Before I had any chance to get genuinely bored, some intriguing development pulled me back in whether it was another hallucination or an update on the scarcity of Aron's resources. I could not recall that last time I was this emotionally engaged in watching a water bottle slowly empty as Aron made a valiant effort in rationing his liquids.
It is easy to admire Aron's sense of resourcefulness and MacGyver-inspired problem solving early on. Yet as many of us know, he resorts to cruder methods during the final hours. The well-known arm amputation scene is not as intense and graphic the film's early buzz made it out to be. Sure, there is quite a bit of blood spread around but there is an impressive believability in the messiness of act. Had it been Bruce Willis, he would have just sliced it off with a machete in one motion. Franco's approach is to break bone, cut, tear, and saw. Weak audiences are spared the details when he's at the halfway point, when the remaining strands of tendon and muscle are still attached. The scene is poignant enough to get the reaction it deserves without needing to go overboard with gory details.
Expect to overhear a lot of wincing, cringing and gasping on opening weekend, and not just with this scene, but in the other ways Aron copes with his situation. Many films, especially blockbusters, are appreciated on a higher level when you watch it in a crowded theater. 127 Hours is certainly another film worth watching in a packed house; it's just a different group experience than the collective cheering in The Dark Knight or the laugh out loud moments of Pulp Fiction.
Speaking of Tarantino, he and Danny Boyle share similar talents for taking special care in crafting a worthwhile soundtrack. Boyle does rely more on original compositions and he wisely brings back the immensely talented A.R. Rahman who scored Slumdog Millionaire. When Boyle does use popular music, it is sometimes with the black comedy effect that Tarantino is known for. Boyle did it as far back as 1994 with his first film, Shallow Grave where a montage involving a dead, decomposing flatmate was juxtaposed against Nina Simone's 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'. In the case of 127 Hours, Bill Withers 'Lovely Day' greets the viewer at the start of Aron's second day in the canyon. The uplifting tone of the song compliments the optimism you see in Franco's demeanor. Unfortunately, we as the audience are in on the joke, knowing full well that due to the film's title, it's way to early for him to break free.
Yet don't be surprised to find yourself quietly cheering on Franco even though you know he's not going anywhere for a while. Even as the crew of the Titanic was trying in vain to avoid that iceberg, that did not stop audience from egging on the ship in avoiding that piece of ice. The same level of immersion is felt in 127 Hours. Once Franco got stuck, his natural reaction was to lift the rock with all his might. When you see the intensity of Franco's face, a small part of you will think he can actually move that rock even though you're only 20 minutes into the film. It also helps that some of the camera work is intentionally presented in a documentary style, making many scenes all the more engaging.
It is rare to find a director today whose subject matter from film to film is as diverse as Boyle's. While so many of his trademark filming techniques are present in 127 Hours, it's amazing how much captivation he can draw out of the audience and deliver a great deal of action in a near-stationary premise. It's quite a contrast to the countless foot chase scenes in Slumdog, Trainspotting, The Beach and of course, 28 Days Later.