Review: ‘127 Hours’ a delight that could have dwelled more on Ralston’s plight
October 5, 2010
ASPEN – Danny Boyle, who has directed such visually kinetic films as “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” took on the story of former Aspenite Aron Ralston as a challenge: How do you tell the story of a guy pinned, immobile, to a canyon wall for five days and make it visually stimulating?
In “127 Hours,” which was screened Friday at Aspen Filmfest – the film’s third public presentation – Boyle eliminates that issue entirely, and from the first moment. “127 Hours” opens in hyperactive fashion, with a split-screen technique portraying bustling urban street scenes simultaneously with James Franco, as Ralston, frantically gearing up for his trip into the Utah desert. He dashes through his apartment picking up ropes and tools, and the camera is equally busy, zooming into his ringing telephone and a Swiss army knife perching atop Ralston’s closet.
If this opening reflected a worry on Boyle’s part about the necessarily slower pace that’s ahead, he could have relaxed. The depiction of Ralston’s five days stuck in Blue John Canyon cause as much heart-racing and breathless anticipation as any action film, as he spends those hours hallucinating, fantasizing, strategizing, lamenting and physically deteriorating. The visual presentation of Ralston’s ordeal is anything but static, as the viewer is taken into his past, his imagination – and into his physical surroundings, using the Utah wilderness not only as a spectacularly beautiful setting, but also a character in the plot.
If anything, the film tilts too much toward action – or, more to the point, doesn’t allow for enough downtime. For a film ostensibly about the passing of time – consider the title – there is little sense of the long expanse of hours passing. If Ralston ever experienced just sheer boredom – it’s possible he didn’t; Ralston doesn’t seem wired for incuriosity – it isn’t conveyed. “127 Hours” lasts just 94 minutes, and that time passes quickly.
As it is, “127 Hours” offers plenty of substance that it might have dwelled on further. Ralston is depicted as a young man moving a little too fast for his own good – hustling too much to answer up his mother’s phone call; not thinking to let anyone know where exactly in the vast emptiness of southern Utah he was headed. The boulder that probably hadn’t budged in millennia picks its moment to move with seeming purpose. As Ralston notes, his whole life had been leading up to that rock. It slows him down but good, and “127 Hours” becomes about a person trying to release himself from self-absorption and ego, as well as from a two-ton piece of earth.
The boulder picked not only the right moment, but the right person. Ralston – an engineer as well as an outdoorsman – is far more resourceful than most; he uses his ropes to create a fairly elaborate pulley system to move the rock. It’s of no use, and eventually he has to resort to more injurious methods to free himself.
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The climactic moment of “127 Hours” (which is scheduled for national release on Nov. 5) isn’t Ralston freeing himself. (That scene, reported to have caused several fainting incidents at previous screenings, wasn’t nearly as horrific as it might have been.) It is the moment of self-realization. Freed from the canyon, but still bleeding, dehydrated, delirious and many miles from a hospital, Ralston isn’t entirely saved just yet. He glimpses a family of hikers ahead of him. He tries to scream, but is unable to make the words. He tries again, and finally, the message he has needed to say comes out: “I need help!”
They are words of connection, of understanding that he can’t do it all himself. And they are words that Ralston realizes he should have been saying to his family and friends long before he got his arm stuck under a rock.