The true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston's (James Franco) remarkable adventure to save himself after a fallen boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah. Over the next five days Ralston examines his life and survives the elements to finally discover he has the courage and the wherewithal to extricate himself by any means necessary, scale a 65 foot wall and hike over eight miles before he is finally rescued.
It is not often that one criticises a film for being 'too entertaining’ but Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours presents such a conundrum. The story of a man stuck under a rock somehow becomes a whirring, frantic flight of cinematic bluster – enjoyable, even exhilarating at times, but frustratingly at odds with how one imagines the actual experience must have been.
Adapting American adventurer Aron Ralston’s account of the 2003 Utah canyoning trip that went horribly wrong, Boyle goes over the top with every camera/editing/music trick in his arsenal to convey one man’s descent into a solitary, fateful madness. Split-screens, undefined light sources, random song references (cleverly, in the case of Bill Whither’s 'Lovely Day'), pop culture images, rat-a-tat zooms and that old favourite, slow-motion sentimentality accompanied by soaring orchestration, are just some of the techniques employed with an ADHD fervour by a director whose disingenuous flourishes come very close to spoiling the inherent drama.
Ultimately, it takes a terrific performance by James Franco to colour in the more human aspects of 127 Hours. Initially portraying Ralston as a free-spirit refusing to be burdened by the responsibilities of modern life, Franco fully realises one of the most satisfying character arcs in recent movie memory. As a young man relishing his young manliness, Franco’s Ralston takes for granted family (he ignores his mum’s phone messages), his first love and his own body (an attempt to find comfort in one last act of self-gratification merely causes further anguish). Faced with a horrible and imminent death, his mind both clarifies and torments him with that which is most important. Franco, a strong physical presence onscreen despite being literally between a rock and a hard place for most of the film, fully deserves the Oscar nomination for his work here – he draws strong emotions from very dark places.
Danny Boyle’s best works coerce the fantastic elements of his protagonist’s plight from the gruelling reality of their existence – Trainspotting (1996), the under-rated A Life Less Ordinary (1997), 28 Days Later... (2002) and Sunshine (2007). These films offer up worlds that Boyle populates with vivid manifestations of his characters’ psychology; his technical artistry as a filmmaker finds justification in these settings. Less successful are his films that tell straightforward narratives but which he feels the need to 'energise’ – namely, The Beach (2000) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The films in which he minimalised the whiz-bangery in favour of precise, flavoursome storytelling – Shallow Grave (1994) and Millions (2004) – are, in fact, his most satisfying works.
It is easy to understand the appeal of 127 Hours to the filmmaker; how the development of Ralston’s sustenance-deprived hallucinatory madness (see Trainspotting) and the rousing, life-affirming ending (see Slumdog Millionaire) must have appeared perfectly suited to his modus operandi. But there is a lack of heart in his storytelling, a near-fatal favouring of style over substance, which diminishes one of the most potent true-life tales of our time.
127 Hours is compulsively watchable but, given it features a fearless actor giving a great performance in a film that begs deep exploration of our own mortality, it deserved to be so much more.