127 Hours: Danny Boyle’s Must-See Film

Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a more sharply focused, more emotionally touching, and more technically impressive film than his 2008 Oscar-winning feature, “Slumdog Millionaire.”

It goes without saying that 127 Hours is one of the best films of the year, an effective work of art that reaffirms our belief in the future of humanity as well as our belief in the future of cinema as the most visceral and powerful medium among the arts.

In the hands of another director, 127 Hours could have easily become just a freaky gut-wrenching horror show.  By now it’s no secret that in the climax, Aron Ralston, the film’s hero—and he is a hero no matter how you define the term—decides to cut off his arm with a blade.

But Boyle, an always bold if eclectic director known for his penchant to combine different visual styles, shapes the story into a dynamic, darkly humorous narrative without neglecting the more serious themes.

On one level, 127 Hours is an existential comedy of survival, largely due to the goofy and active personality of the hero who, despite excruciating physical pain, never loses his sense of reality, his resourcefulness, his determination to be in direct touch and control with his body and mind—and sense of humor.

Among other things, the film deals with elemental issues that most viewers can relate to, namely, what are we willing to do and how far are we willing to go in order to survive?

With all the praise for Boyle’s bravura helming, it should be pointed tight away that it’s impossible to imagine the film without the gifted and versatile James Franco, who gives an astoundingly powerful performance, one that should easily garner him his first Oscar nomination, perhaps even win the award itself.

The true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston was first published in 2003 as a memoir aptly titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.”  Not surprisingly, it quickly became a best-seller with many Hollywood producers knocking on its door.  Ralston’s remarkable adventure, adapted to the screen by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (who also scripted “Slumdog Millionaire”), depicts in a viscerally emotional way how he saves himself after a falling boulder crashes on his arm.

What exactly happened?

On a Friday night in April of 2003, Ralston, then 26, drove to Utah to spend the weekend hiking in the stunningly gorgeous and remote Canyonlands National Park.  Six days later, he emerged to recount

a most remarkable tale of survival, an unforgettable story of human strength in the face of adversity.

Spanning five days, 127 Hours describes in horrifying–and horrific—details how Ralston battles Nature’s elements as well as his own innermost demons to finally discover enormous courage.  In the course of the saga, Ralston extricates himself by using all the necessary means, which include descending a 65-foot wall and hiking over eight miles before being finally rescued.

The narrative unfolds as an adventure of the highest order, which is both external and internal.  The film depicts in an unflinching mode Ralston’s exterior acts as well as personal feelings during a sudden, extreme moment of reckoning. It shows how digging deep into himself he finally finds the will to hang on, that is, to reengage with life.

What enriches the narrative structure, which is essentially spare and minimal, is a series of subjective recollections. Throughout his journey, Ralston recalls friends, family, lovers (Clémence Poésy), and the two hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) he had just met before the accident.

Ralston survives the harrowing 127 hours in the wilderness with his hand pinned by an immovable fallen boulder, and with scant food and mere drops of water.  Initially, his situation seems completely desperate and utterly unbearable. Yet ultimately he is able to escape it through an act of incredible bravery.

As a director, Boyle sees something special in Ralston’s inspirational story, an opportunity to forge a groundbreaking first-person cinematic experience that immerses the audience in every emotionally charged second, every fantasy and dream, every memory and regret as Ralston moves from grim despair and helplessness to emotionally touching renewed commitment to life, leading him to do what seems impossible.

In the film, the highly subjective camera gets under Aron’s skin and into his head during the most urgent life-or-death circumstances, and it does so in an ultra-vivid and realistic way that no other medium but film could accomplish.

Two distinguished cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle (who shot “Slumdog Millionaire”) and Enrique Chediak (“28 Days Later”), should be given credit for the visually inventive techniques that are used to recreate Ralston’s full range of experiences.

Production and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb, editor Jon Harris, and composer A.R. Rahman contribute to the making of a uniquely cinematic work, overcoming the inherent limitations of a single protagonist, stuck in unbearable states of aloneness and loneliness (often in the dark).

Through the joined efforts of the gifted director, actor, and crew, the film covers the physical, metaphysical, mental and psychological aspects of the ordeal, resulting in a feature that’s viscerally, emotionally, and intellectually satisfying.