Aron Ralston's biggest passion is the outdoors and, on a Friday night in April of 2003, he heads out to a campsite near Utah's Canyonlands National Park to prepare for a lot of biking, hiking, and mountaineering the next day. After biking for nearly 20 miles, Aron heads out on foot, soon coming across hikers Kristi and Megan, who believe that they're off-track from where they plan to go and Aron points them in the right direction, leading them to an underground pool along the way. The three spend some time swimming and dropping down into the pool repeatedly before parting ways, with the two of them inviting him to a party the following night. Aron makes his way to Blue John Canyon and attempts to climb down into a small slot canyon, only to slip and fall to the bottom, knocking loose a large boulder that smashes and pins his right hand against the canyon wall, leaving him stuck. Unable to pry the rock off, Aron soon realizes that he's completely alone and isolated, with very little food and water, and, worst of all, he told no one where he was going. As the days pass, he continues to try to free himself, with no luck, and begins recording a video diary to try to keep his morale up, telling himself not to lose it. However, as his condition and exposure to the elements worsen and his food and water run low, he begins to both hallucinate and remember notable moments in his life, both good and bad, ultimately coming to the conclusion that his arrogance and disregard towards the people in his life, including an old girlfriend and his family, led him to where he is now. Now, it's just a question of whether Aron will simply accept his impending death or find a new will to survive.
Obviously in a movie like this, the lead role is what's most important, as he or she is literally the one who holds the entire weight of the story on their shoulders (or their hand, in this case), and I'd be lying if I said James Franco's performance as Aron Ralston sucked because it definitely doesn't. It had to have been a very taxing role not only physically but acting-wise as well, because he has quite an arc to play here. We see him start as a reckless, perhaps even a bit arrogant, but charismatic free-spirit who loves the outdoors, so much so that he neglects a message left on his answering machine by his sister in order to get going to Canyonlands National Park, and looks most comfortable when he's biking and hiking across the desert and canyons. Even a fairly nasty crash on his bike early on doesn't dampen his spirit, and when he comes across two young women who are lost, he not only good-naturedly points them in the right direction but shows them an underground pool where they can have and cool off for a bit. Despite the bond the three of them seem to form, it's obvious even at this early stage that Aron probably wouldn't have shown up at the party they invited him to because of how carefree and independent-minded he is, whooping excitedly as he heads on down his own path after they go their separate ways. However, when things take a dramatic turn after that boulder traps him at the bottom of the slot canyon, you see the change in Aron's attitude immediately. Naturally, he starts out in a panic, trying desperately to free himself, and when that doesn't work, he attempts to call for help, only to realize that there's no one within miles. He's completely alone. Once that's dawned on him, he calmly empties his backpack out to see what he's got in there that could help, wisely rationing his water and whatever food he has, and attempting to chip away the rock with his pocketknife in order to get enough room to free his hand. As time passes, he begins making a video diary with his camera, both to keep his morale up as well as to leave something behind for his loved ones in case he doesn't make it. Trying to keep his cool, reminding himself not to lose it when he becomes frantic at one point when he thinks there's somebody up there, he makes other attempts to free himself with a makeshift pulley and again tries to chip away at the rock, only to theorize that he's actually causing it to settle more, while continuing to ration his supplies.
After all of that, you're no doubt going to say, "I thought you said you ended up not caring about the main character's plight and that Franco's performance didn't do anything for you." Well, it's weird. When I think about it in retrospect, like right now, I can really look into and appreciate all these nuances in his performance and characterization but, when actually watching the movie, even though I can see them there as well, they don't do much for me. I think a big reason for that is, again, how off-putting I find Danny Boyle's overly-done direction and editing to be (in other words, it's so "in your face" that it distracts me from enjoying the real meat of the film) but another reason is Franco himself. You ever have one of those actors who, no matter how truly good some of their individual performances are, you just can't get into them? That's how it is with Franco for me (Tom Cruise is another example, in case you're wondering). I don't mind him as Harry Osborn in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies, mind you, but he's never been an actor who I find to be that appealing and someone I want to watch. He has charisma, yes, especially at the beginning of the movie and when he meets the girls, but something about him has always felt... off to me. Maybe it's that cheesy, stoner-like smile he often has or the fact that he is apparently a bit of an oddball (like I'm one to talk) but, whatever it is, as much as I can appreciate his really dramatic moments, character insight, and the sense of desperation he gives off when things quickly go south in the film, it's not enough for me to really root for him to make it. I don't hope that he dies, mind you, but I'm mainly just sitting there, watching him emote without much emotional investment. I'm probably not making any sense and sound very contradictory but, in the end, Franco is both a big strength for the film and a weakness for my personal enjoyment of it. I will say, though, I think he was a better choice for the role than Cillian Murphy, who Boyle originally wanted. I like that guy as an actor but he's so unintentionally creepy and menacing that I think it would have been far more detrimental for the movie if he'd been Aron Ralston.
This is such a one-man show for James Franco that all of the other characters are pretty much superfluous, save for how Aron feels about them and how their significance in his life impacts his state-of-mind. Really, they're only worth mentioning in passing. The two who get the most screentime outside of Aron are Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), who Aron comes across in the desert before his trek goes south but they really only serve to show how free-spirited and good-natured Aron is when he points them in the right direction and has some fun with them before heading on his merry way, probably not giving them a second thought until he gets stuck. One of them, however, does seem to have an interest in him... or maybe they both did. It was kind of hard to tell since their personalities aren't developed that much. Really, there are only two other characters who have a major impact on the story: Rana (Clemence Poesy), Aron's former girlfriend, who seemed to have genuine affection for him but was ultimately driven away by his distant, isolating attitude, warning him that he was going to end up alone someday, and the vision of his future son (P.J. Hull), which is what motivates him to do whatever it takes to survive. After them, you have his sister, Sonja (Lizzy Caplan in the present and Bailee Michele Morgan in the flashback where she's ten), his mother (Kate Burton), and his father (Treat Williams), all of whom he's been neglecting and ignoring and recent years, an act he comes to seriously regret when it begins to look like he's not going to make it. The most prominent appearance in the film, though, is of the real Aron Ralston, his wife, Jessica, and their infant son, who the fictional Aron sees a vision of at the very end after surfacing from a swimming pool. I always thought that was an interesting and clever touch, especially since it goes along with the caption that informs the viewer that Aron's vision of his future son ended up coming true (those are also the real man's friends and family standing around the couch beforehand).
By far, one of the biggest strengths of 127 Hours is in its look. This is a very gorgeous-looking movie, with excellent cinematography by Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle, and it really comes to life in high-definition. Like I said at the beginning, one of the reasons why I wanted to check the film out was the setting. Besides being in that hot-weather frame of mind at the time, I've always liked the desert as a cinematic environment period and I think the filmmakers did a really good job in making it come to life here. The film's opening is full of breathtaking beauty shots of the Utah landscape, with its long stretches of vast desert and rocky mountains and canyons in the distance, which prove to be just as lovely when we see them up close as they are in the distance. We also get to see how incredible the place looks at different points during the day, with one of my favorite moments in the film being when Aron thinks back to when he was a little kid and his father took him out to a cliff so they could watch the sunrise illuminate the landscape. That no doubt had to be the start of his love of the outdoors and you can't really blame him, as it's a beautiful sight, like something you'd see in an issue of National Geographic. Another moment that I like is when, after his first night of being Aron, sees the sun gradually illuminate the slot canyon, starting at the end across from him and then proceeding to come right towards him. I think my favorite location altogether, though, is the underground pool that Aron leads Kristi and Megan to. I'm sure that was actually a set, especially since the real Aron Ralston says that this part of the story is fictional, but it's lit so well and looks so beautiful, with the water being pure blue, that I don't really care. It also doesn't hurt that I love hidden spots like that anyway, as I feel that they give a kind of mystery and wonder to everyday life.
You really have to admire any filmmaker who takes up the challenge of setting the majority of their movie inside one small, claustrophobic setting because it must be really challenging to keep it from becoming boring since the viewer is going to be looking at the same thing for a very long time and also because it's undoubtedly very challenging and taxing for the actor, as it was for James Franco here, who found the filming to be very exhausting and even physically painful. I think Danny Boyle rose to the challenge quite well and managed to successfully pull it off, which is what I meant when I said I can't fault the film's technical achievements (for the most part, anyway) as it's very well-made. You're basically stuck in this cramped, uncomfortable little quarry with Aron Ralston, with very few angles aside from the camera often being right up in his face, especially when he's recording his video diaries, but Boyle's direction, which lets you see how the place looks at different times of day (midday, afternoon, night, and even during a rainstorm that floods the place), and Franco's performance do manage to keep it from becoming monotonous and allow you to focus on the drama at hand... that is, until Boyle's overzealous visual style gets in the way yet again.
That's not a mistake on my part. That's how this moment
looks in the film.
Once he gets stuck and he begins to both dream and hallucinate, the film's visuals become all the more confusing. You see a random shot of somebody climbing atop one of the large stones in the canyon and asking someone else, "How the fuck did this get here?" I'm guessing it's supposed to be a memory of him and a friend taking a hike there which, fine, whatever. It was still random but at least it didn't take me long to realize what it probably was. However, later on you get a sudden cut to a van full of naked people out in the middle of a snowstorm. Huh?! Later, it's made clear that this was some bizarre thing he took part in (maybe it was the Polar Bear Club) and was how he first me Rana but, when I first saw it, I thought I accidentally sat on my Blu-Ray Player remote and skipped ahead a chapter! And near the end, when he's given up hope and is basically just waiting to die, there's a moment where he looks up and sees somebody looking down at him who I think is meant to be Theodore Roosevelt. I could be wrong on that and it's something I'm not getting but I think that's who it's meant to be. Regardless, why is he thinking about Theodore Roosevelt in his dying moments? I understand that, by this point, his brain is not functioning properly at all but, still, why Roosevelt? It's another random visual that takes me out of the drama that I should be caught up in. But the one I can't get over is a motif that, at first, made sense. Kristi and Megan tell Aron that the place holding the party they invite him to can be recognized by a big, inflatable Scooby-Doo nearby and, during his second night being stuck, he dreams about going to said party and we not only see the balloon but also hear the Scooby-Doo theme song. Odd but at least it makes sense... and then, later on when Aron has really gone off the deep end and is hallucinating almost constantly, he thinks that there's something behind him in the quarry. He cranes his neck around and uses the flash off his camera to illuminate whatever it is, revealing that Scooby-Doo balloon for a brief second, accompanied by his trademark laugh. Again, what the hell?! I know he was thinking about Scooby-Doo before but this happens long after that, so why would that come up in his head? I can't believe Danny Boyle saw that and thought it was acceptable because I just find it to be stupid and weird for the sake of weird.
In addition, there are visuals in the film that I find to be either not necessary or make me roll my eyes and go, "Really?" For instance, after Aron tries to unsuccessfully to hoist the rock off with a makeshift pulley, he mentions in his video diary what he needs for it to work, adding, "Oh, and, uh, eight burly men to do all the hauling," during which we see the shadows of eight big guys on the desert landscape. Okay, why was the necessary? At one point, Aron has a dream about a massive thunderstorm hitting the desert and flooding the slot canyon, with the buoyancy allowing him to free himself and we see him escape, only to end up at Rana's house and for her to leave him outside in the rain. I get that the last part was meant to emphasize how much he's isolated himself and how that's one thing he'll never have back even if he is freed but the sequence with the storm, the canyon filling up, and Aron getting free and heading back goes on for a while and is a bit excessive for something that turns out to be a dream, even if I know that it has to be something that's been on his mind for a while, given the situation. But the one that really got me is when Aron, before he gets the will to live and go on, sees a vision of his parents sitting on a couch in the quarry with him, followed up by all of his friends being there with them as well. As I've said many times by now, I get the idea behind it, that he's thinking about all the people he'll never see, but I still have to ask if it was necessary to visualize it in such an artsy way, with the couch and everything. Maybe I'm nitpicky and cynical but that kind of imagery comes across as pretentious to me and I hate it when it's thrown into a movie for seemingly no other reason.
All of this criticism aside, though, there are moments where the stylization doesn't help the story. For me, the absolute best example is when Aron first becomes trapped and, as he futilely yells for Kristi and Megan, the camera, which is directly above him, looking down, pulls back and back and back until we're now in an aerial shot of the canyon and the very vast wilderness surrounding it. The addition of Aron's screams growing more and more faint as the camera pulls back until we can't hear him anymore hammers home his situation of being completely alone and isolated perfectly. Another moment that I like is when, on his third day stuck there, Aron goes through a bit where he imitates a talk show host and interviews himself about his situation. It's really amazing how this bit evolves. It starts off completely funny and silly, with Aron acting all smarmy as the "host" and dopey and shallow as "himself," and then, right at the end, becomes dead serious. Some of the more memorable exchanges of dialogue are, "Hey, Mom. I'm really sorry I didn't answer the phone the other night. If I had, I would have told you where I was going, and then... well, I probably wouldn't be here right now." "That's for sure! But like I always say, your supreme selfishness is our gain... Oh, wait. Hold on. We've got a question coming in from another Aron in Loser Canyon, Utah! Aron asks..." "Am I right in thinking that even if Brion from work notifies the police, they'll put a 24-hour hold on it before they file a Missing Persons report? Which means you won't become officially missing until midday Wednesday, at the earliest?" "Yeah. You're right on the money there, Aron. Which means, I'll probably be dead by then." "Aron from Loser Canyon, Utah. How do you know so much?" "Well, I'll tell you how I know so much. I volunteer for the rescue service. You see, I'm something of a... well, a big, fucking, hard hero. And I can do everything on my own, you see?" "I do see! Now, is it true that despite, or maybe because, you're a big fucking hard hero, you didn't tell anyone where you were going?" He then answers, "Yeah. That's absolutely correct," and proceeds to say, "Oops," several times, growing quieter and quieter as it truly sinks in how screwed he apparently is. It's probably the best scene in the entire movie, as I feel the way the tone shifts is both skillfully played by Franco and well-directed and edited by Boyle and company. At first, I thought the sound of the "audience" applauding and clapping, as well as Brion's face appearing onscreen as if he's on a Skype call, was a bit much but now, I don't mind it, as it adds to the impact when the scene ends with Aron fully realizing what kind of trouble he's in. I also don't mind the effects of Aron taking pictures of himself and later with the girls and the image flicking off-camera afterward, because I think it fits with what's going on, as does when the image on the camera begins to break up (I only put a shot of that and one with his son in that paragraph where I complained about the visuals because I couldn't find any of what was actually talking about) and the same goes for the shot inside his arm when he first contemplates cutting it off and you see the knife-blade hit the bone and especially the vision of his son, as it's what drives him to not give up and eventually free himself.
No matter what my opinion of the movie as a whole is, I can't deny that the makeup effects showing the injury to Aron's arm are excruciatingly realistic and uncomfortable to look. It was already cringe-inducing when the boulder first landed on his arm and you saw the blood on the side of the canyon-wall and later saw that his thumb was turning a nasty purple color from the lack of circulation but the worst part by far is when he finally decides enough is enough and cuts it off. He first bends it until it breaks in a couple of spots (the brief inside shot of the bone bending makes my skin crawl) with a very loud snap each time and then, he proceeds to cut deeply into the flesh, covering his hand, and his face when he wipes it with blood. He stops momentarily to make himself a makeshift tourniquet and tightens it before continuing to cut and cut, quietly telling himself not to mess it up. It is absolutely nasty and sickening to watch (the makeup effects are by the legendary Tony Gardner) and to emphasize the agonizing pain he feels when he hits the nerve, which you see in gratuitous detail, Boyle puts in a high-pitched, shrill shrieking sound that also gets under my skin. When he finally sucks it up and cuts the nerve, going through the pain until it snaps, you see a silent montage of him screaming, which is just as powerful as if we could actually hear him. After that, he pulls and pulls and cuts some more, spurned on by another vision of his future son, until it finally comes loose and is free, albeit at a massive, painful price.
The music score by A.R. Rahman is pretty stark and sparing for the most part, with no real discernible themes or leitmotifs, which makes sense given that this is a small, intimate human story. No need for anything really big. The most memorable parts of the score are these low-key, guitar pieces that play like when Aron tries to move the rock when he first gets stuck and when he's cutting through his arm, as well as sort of drum bit for when he's getting his stuff out after getting trapped and nice, ethereal music for both his happy and sad memories. Actually, the most memorable piece of the score itself is this big, grand theme that plays when he's finally freed himself and eventually comes across the family who arrange for his rescue. That plays a little too long for me, though, but I like the more subtle, calm bit it segues into the section before the ending credits. The film truly goes for musical inspiration in the songs it plays on its soundtrack, with the opening being set to Never Hear Surf Music Again by Free Blood, another part that really threw me off when I first saw it but, after watching the movie a couple of more times, I've grown to like the unusual beat and the energy that it has. Bill Withers' Lovely Day plays when Aron tries to hoist the rock up with a makeshift pulley and fails, with the upbeat, happy tune making for an interesting contrast with what it's accompanying. Plastic Bertrand's Ca Plane Pour Moi plays during that random flashback with the naked people in the car in the middle of a snowstorm and since it's a random-sounding song itself, it fits with that scene in how much it threw me. Unfortunately, I have to confess that I'm not a big fan of If I Rise, which is performed by Rahman himself, along with Dido. I know it's supposed to be the musical heart and soul of the movie, as it plays when Aron has the meaningful vision of his future son, but I just don't like the way it sounds and I can understand most of the lyrics because of how high-pitched the singing is.