If you don't walk away from 127 Hours with a replenished appreciation for life and the connections we share with the people around us, then perhaps it's time to turn off your computer, throw your cell phone off a cliff, and take a long hike down a winding cavern -- just be sure to tell someone where you've gone in case anything goes wrong. It was that simple oversight that cost Aron Ralston half of his right arm, and nearly his life.
Thanks to his harrowing experience and the talents of some exceptionally gifted filmmakers, however, we needn't suffer the pain that he endured to learn this important lesson, because director/co-screenwriter Danny Boyle, his writing partner Simon Beaufoy, and actor James Franco have done a remarkable job conveying the complex thought process that Ralston went through after getting pinned to a rock in the desert for just over five days, as well as the incredible physical and mental struggle that it took to keep his cool as his body turned against him.
An experienced hiker and climber, Ralston (Franco) is very much in his element when he parks his truck by a mountain near Moab, UT, hops on his bike, and peddles to the middle of nowhere. Later, when Ralston encounters a pair of young female hikers who have gotten lost while searching for a local landmark, he jovially shows them a sight that most casual hikers miss before bidding them farewell and continuing on his way. Drifting through the canyons alone, deep in thought, however, the explorer who presumed he was ready for anything quickly discovers just how fast things can spin out of control when a rock gives way as he shimmies down a crevice, and pins his hand to the unforgiving wall of stone. Over the course of the next 127 hours, Ralston tries everything he can think of to free himself, flashing back to small but memorable events in his life -- as well as forward to the future that he might enjoy should he manage to wiggle free -- as his body begins the slow process of shutting down. Eventually realizing that the only way out is to leave part of himself behind, the exhausted, delirious adventurer draws his cheap made-in-China multi-tool, and does what it takes to survive.
For anyone reluctant to sit through 127 Hours due to the one fairly brief scene in which a man graphically saws through his flesh and tendons with a dull blade in order to avoid dying a grim death in a deep cavern, it should be noted that you'll be missing one of the most vibrant, life-affirming films to come down the pike in quite some time. The passion and sincerity of the filmmakers ensure that this remarkable tale of human endurance avoids lapsing into maudlin drama, and they instead approach the story with a sense of humor, a streak of surrealism, and a transcendent peacefulness in all the right places. By using Ralston's mental review as a means of exploring the decisions we make based on things like ego and pride, Boyle and Beaufoy make one man's struggle feel universal. Ralston is the kind of free spirit many of us aspire to be, but it's only when that free spirit becomes trapped that he finds the time to reflect on the things that really matter. Franco's performance as Ralston is note-perfect, too. Unquestioningly confident yet flawed and vulnerable, the character Franco has to play is made up of a rich and sometimes contradictory assembly of personality traits, each of which the actor expresses with equal conviction. Make no mistake, the scene in which Ralston sacrifices his hand in the name of freedom is likely to shake even battle-hardened gore-hounds, but in context it registers more as an incredible testament to human perseverance than gratuitous exploitation.
With 127 Hours, Boyle continues to move out of the darkness that defined his early work and into a new, seemingly more optimistic phase in his career. But while he may be coloring in brighter shades these days, to say that he's losing his edge would be a grave disservice to the intensity and energy of his recent films. Unlike many filmmakers, whose inspiration you can virtually watch dissipate over the course of their careers, Boyle has managed the unique feat of maintaining the vigor and striking visual style that first got him noticed while moving on to more complex, mature themes that give his later work more gravity than ever before. From its pounding soundtrack to its inventive camera shots and creative editing, 127 Hours is a movie so overflowing with life that at times we feel a physical connection to it.
The world can be an incredibly grim place, and our struggles within it can be marked by intense pain and anguish. As a filmmaker, Boyle seems acutely aware of this, and his films reflect that. Aron Ralston's struggle was not in vain; not only did it teach him to appreciate the things that he had and to not take for granted the people who surrounded him, but now Boyle and company have done an exemplary job of allowing us all to reap the benefits of that experience and still walk away physically intact.