As man-against-nature stories go, 127 Hours is a bit of a detour: there’s no fending off wolves or grizzlies, flash floods or blizzards. Aron Ralston’s (James Franco) foe is instead the inert but somehow malevolent boulder that falls, along with Aron, into a narrow crevice in the earth, pinning his arm and trapping him. 127 Hours documents Aron’s surreal efforts to try to survive and cope with his intractable predicament which ends in a grisly denouement.
Aron is the kind of resourceful, adventurous, seemingly invincible guy who can drive all night into the Utah wilderness, bike 20 miles, and still be spry and eager-beaver enough to escort two pretty female hikers he encounters in the wild to his favorite geographic anomaly: a claustrophobic crevice accessed via an aerial spider crawl that drops into a cave swimming hole. He’s a party boy who gets down billy-goating over boulders and racing his bike through the desert instead of tearing up the dance floor. Nature is his adrenaline rush. With his endearing grin and slightly nerdy Gatorade-fueled energy, Franco is the perfect hero for this film, lovable despite his conviction that he is a Grizzly Adams action hero. Director Danny Boyle’s tale is a cautionary one, one of a warrior humbled and of the limitations to rugged individualism; Franco makes that message both human and accessible.
Boyle has often gravitated toward men in desperate circumstances, whether it’s the heroin addicts of Trainspotting or the zombie-fighting survivors of 28 Days Later. He juices up Aron’s story with his signature kinetic camerawork, conveying the frenzied, chaotic nature of the contemporary world that Aron longs to escape in the film’s opening passages. Split screens show the running of the bulls, packed city streets, mosh pits, marathons, and subway crowds, which demonstrate the mania of modern life. Ironically, Aron’s wilderness never feels any more peaceful. His experience of nature is mediated at every step by technology: an iPod blasting tunes, a video camera, a digital watch. Technology is the 21st-century equivalent of a comforting and familiar security blanket. Even when he takes a spill off of his bike, Aron is compelled to photograph the moment. With all of his tools and his nature-boy expertise, it’s easy to see why Aron feels at ease and infallible in the wild.
But Aron has forgotten the most important rule of any epic journey: tell someone, anyone, where you’re going. Chewed up with regret in the pit that could be the end of him, he flashes back to a pretty blonde girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) he did wrong, his sister and friends, and his frumpy, loving parents (Treat Williams, Kate Burton) in happier days.
Aron’s disconnection from people at first seems enabled by technology — his home answering machine is a way of avoiding people and the video camera onto which he bares his soul once he’s trapped between a rock and a hard place seems to be more of a sign of his detachment than a connection.
As the film unfolds, Boyle makes it clear that Aron’s crucible is less a battle with nature as it is a confrontation with self, as Aron begins to consider his isolation in the larger scheme of things and how failing to alert anyone to his whereabouts is only emblematic of a larger, gnawing solitude. The rock becomes symbolic: a dramatic blockage to his life’s path that forces a confrontation with himself. “I chose this,” Aron laments at one particularly low point of fateful resignation.
Vastly entertaining for what it shows of human ingenuity as well as Boyle’s wildfire visual imagination, 127 Hours is a classic, albeit internalized, adventure story juiced up with Boyle’s attention-deficit-disorder camera work, which renders the world a pop-music fueled, caffeinated frenzy, as hallucinatory as any drug trip. The camera’s ability to plumb radical new depths and convey experience at its most immediate is never more on display than in the buzzed-about scene where Aron amputates his own arm with a dull knife in a last-ditch effort to save his life. With sudden buzz-saw jolts of music as graphic as anything on screen and an unflinching, cold-sweat inducing dissection of the nitty gritty of how one goes about a self-amputation (there are more steps involved than you would think), Boyle conveys the essence of his story: an ingenuity and will to survive that puts the quandaries of our own daily existence to shame.
Boyle’s camera careens back from Aron’s crack in the earth’s maw to show the vast, rocky wilderness he’s lost within. In a nod to Aron’s media-addled imagination, he shows a crazed montage of vintage TV commercials of surf and soda to express Aron’s thirst. Aron’s — but also Boyle’s — consciousness is defined by pop culture white noise. In that sense, Aron never feels truly alone. But as 127 Hours goes on, the film itself transforms. It shifts from a critique of technology to one that finds the tools of the modern world, whether a camcorder or a movie camera, deeply ennobling and connective. They are the bond that connects us to one another.