The story told in 127 Hours is well known both from media reports and from Aron Ralston’s autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which documents the incident in which he was forced to amputate his arm below the elbow with a blunt pen knife after being pinned to a canyon wall by a boulder. While Ralston’s tenacity and will to live make for a gripping narrative, it was hard to see how it might make good cinema. After all, the materials to work with are strictly circumscribed by the circumstances: One man, one rock, no way out.
Movies with one character on screen alone for long periods have been made before. Robert Zemeckis’ Castaway (2000) with Tom Hanks was a remarkably effective evocation of one man’s isolation. Danny Boyle ups the ante with 127 Hours, for his character is stuck in a narrow crevice in the rock for most of the film, his view of the world outside restricted to a ribbon of sky high above.
That 127 Hours works as a cinematic experience must be partly attributed to its appeal as a media event. It is important that the self-amputation did actually occur. Much more gruesome scenes of torn and mutilated bodies can be found any day of the week at your local multiplex in the horror, thriller or war genres, but seldom do these generate reports of audience members fainting, vomiting or having other violent physical reactions. The relatively short, but intense, scene in 127 Hours has reportedly generated numerous such incidents.
Ralston continues to be a prolific mountaineer, tackling challenging climbs, many of them solo, which makes the film, almost by definition, an inspirational one. He has also become known as an inspirational speaker, relating how in the loss of a hand he rediscovered his life.
This is reality TV plus, and 127 Hours is not without an exploitative taint, though Boyle is far too savvy a director to let this get out of hand. Nevertheless, Ralston’s actions in going off on a dangerous venture without proper equipment and without informing anyone of his intentions have certainly got people on various mountain climbing Web sites riled at what they see as a glorification of irresponsible behavior.
To be fair, Ralston, who is played by James Franco in the film, is portrayed very much as an arrogant young man all too aware of his own abilities. In his cavalier approach to high-risk climbing, he is riding for a fall, but when he does fall, he sucks it up and does the almost unthinkable to survive. Franco never plays for sympathy, and while he undergoes many variations on the themes of panic, despair and self-pity, he shows that it is Ralston’s self-belief that helps him hold it all together. We get to know Ralston through a mixture of hallucinogenic sequences, as well as a monologue that he directs to his camcorder. It is this technological aspect that is another reason for the film’s appeal, giving it a contemporary vibe and universality. While we cannot all relate to the thrill of clambering through complex cave systems as though they were our own back garden, self-reflection and confession through a piece of consumer electronics is something that has become part of our daily lives. Ralston is doing something profoundly familiar, albeit in a very unusual circumstance. We can relate to him not as an extreme athlete but as a regular guy firmly embedded in our own consumer culture.
Over the days and nights of his ordeal, Ralston relies on his camcorder and his watch as his only means of keeping in touch with reality. From the depths of despair he rises to the occasion, presenting brief humorous descriptions of his situation and reflections on friends and family for those who might eventually find him.
Boyle uses these and other devices from his considerable repertoire to keep the film moving, cutting from dream to flashback to video footage and back to reality. The camera constantly explores — sometimes from Ralston’s perspective, at others rising high into the desert sky for magnificent panoramas. Although 127 Hours never escapes the narrow confines of one man’s story, it is a magnificent piece of cinematic orchestration that manages to be gripping for all of its 95 minutes.