Review: ‘127 Hours’ a pulse-raiser with a purpose
December 2, 2010
The part of the Aron Ralston story that everyone knows – Ralston amputating half of his right arm to free himself from a boulder in Utah’s Blue John Canyon – is the most anticipated scene in “127 Hours,” director Danny Boyle’s film about the episode. Before the theater lights go out, moviegoers are asking each other if they think they’ll be able to handle the sight of dull blade on flesh (and muscle, and, most unnerving, actual nerves). Many have not been able to bear the visual; fainting has been a recurring response, and no doubt, many more viewers have averted their eyes from the screen.
It is also the moment of release – both literal and emotional – in the movie. And the amputation sequence represents the big pay-off for Ralston, who has used his abundant mountaineering skills, fortitude and imagination to release himself from the rock.
But the scene is not the most meaningful part of “127 Hours.” What Boyle wants us to take away from the misadventure in the Utah canyonlands comes shortly after the amputation. Ralston, his half an arm in a tourniquet, his time for survival running low, spots a family of hikers ahead. He tries to say the required words, but his voice fails him. As he tries again, the camera zooms in on his face, signaling that this is a message moment. This time he gets it out: “I need help!”
Ralston’s difficulty in getting the words out could, of course, be due to exhaustion (after five-plus days, he has earned it). Or it could be the dryness of his mouth (water, and lack of it, is among the more prominent themes that Boyle plays with in the film).
But what really keeps Ralston – played with an unexpected but effective sense of humor by James Franco – from speaking is an issue that has been going on since before Blue John. “127 Hours” paints Ralston – accurately, Ralston has acknowledged – as a self-reliant, borderline self-absorbed type, so obsessed with his passions that he forgets to connect with the other parts of the world around him. In the opening scene of “127 Hours,” Ralston scrambles around his Aspen apartment in search of gear; when his mom calls, he lets the answering machine take it – he’s got a canyon to explore. For the moment, he doesn’t need his mom, nor does he need anyone. Wandering out into an immense, remote wilderness, solo, without telling anyone where he is headed isn’t an “oops” experience for Ralston. It is the way he operates. “I need help” are not words that flow naturally from his lips.
Paradoxically, there is a bit of truth to the idea that Ralston doesn’t need help, or not much of it. He is an experienced outdoorsman with a strong appetite for life and a degree in engineering – all vital assets in surviving the ordeal. Of all the people to get pinned in a faraway canyon with the skimpiest set of tools, Ralston is among those who had the best chance of getting out.
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But Boyle’s story isn’t a pulse-raiser about a guy losing his arm. It’s a pulse-raiser about a guy gaining perspective on what is most meaningful.
And to be clear: “127 Hours” is a pulse-raiser. Despite the title’s implication of stagnant time, the film is a thriller. Boyle’s oeuvre is visual motion; his past work include “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” both breathless exercises in kinetic filmmaking. Never mind that Ralston is a motionless action hero; finding ways to make his story come to cinematic life is child’s play for the director. Thanks to Ralston’s fertile imagination, there’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll to be found at the bottom of Blue John Canyon. Nor does Boyle forget that this is, in essence, a wilderness story; there are abundant reminders of the glorious beauty, and the forbidding danger, of the Utah desert.
Considering the title, it is strange that the one element left out of the film is the slow creep of the clock. Boyle doesn’t do slow meditation well; in “127 Hours,” he doesn’t do it at all. As it turns out, “127 Hours” breezes by in a swift 94 minutes, which feels a little like a cheat. We get action, intelligence, visual beauty, spiritual uplift, humor, a captivating and multi-faceted performance by Franco. But we don’t ever get the sense of time standing still – an experience Ralston must have had during his five days in the canyon.