Directors like to test themselves, especially when they’re riding a wave of success. Having enjoyed worldwide acclaim for the emotional and immersive Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle has chosen an entirely different kind of story for his next project that presents a unique series of filmmaking challenges. I’d say he has met them all in 127 Hours, collaborating with key members of his Oscar-winning Slumdog team, including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, composer A.R. Rahman, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who shared his task with Enrique Chediak).
This is the saga of Aron Ralston, a free spirit who loved the thrill of adventure. When he set out on a mountain-biking trip in 2003 he didn’t tell anyone where he was going, and foolishly left—
—his Swiss army knife at home. One slip sent him toppling down a rocky crevice in Utah, where a boulder pinned his arm in place.
Can a story about a man’s struggle to survive on his own for five days be turned into a viable movie? The answer is yes. Ralston took a video camera along with him and documented much of his experience. (He later wrote a book, as well.) Boyle and Beaufoy have used the camera as a storytelling device, enhanced by Ralston’s flashback memories and, ultimately, his hallucinations, which take us out of the cave and back to key moments in his life.
None of this would work if the actor playing Aron Ralston didn’t command the screen, but James Franco does just that. It is a fearless and emotionally engaging performance. What’s more, the film doesn’t try to turn Ralston into a hero; if anything, it portrays him as something of a hedonist. But, as we have seen in news coverage of various crises around the world, the indomitability of the human spirit is endlessly inspiring. Ralston prevails because he simply can’t give up on life.
Finally, a word to the squeamish out there from a card-carrying wimp: you may have heard about the self-amputation scene. Let me reassure you, this is a brief moment in a worthwhile movie. I averted my eyes for a few moments, got the message of the scene, and enjoyed the rest of the picture. And if I can take it, anyone can.