Climber’s amazing survival story makes for gripping ‘127 Hours’
he story of Aron Ralston is a real-life thriller. An experienced young rock-climber and “canyoneer” from Colorado, Ralston was on an impromptu weekend trek into the remote Utah outback in April, 2003, when a freak accident left him stranded at the bottom of a deep crevice with his right arm pinned between the rockface and an immovable boulder. As the days wore on, hallucinating, and at the end of his single thermos of water, Ralston had to make an impossible decision: lose his arm or lose his life.
A lone man immobilized in a narrow crevice for five days may not sound like promising material for a moving picture. But trust inventive filmmaker Danny Boyle to ramp up the suspense and make something wildly kinetic out of Ralston’s harrowing experience in 127 Hours. Swooping in and out of Ralston’s memories, the material in his ever-present video camera, and his increasingly delirious imagination, Boyle keeps the narrative pace brisk and the action intense, while building a solid central character. In this last respect, Boyle is aided enormously by the charismatic James Franco in the starring role, capturing not only Ralston’s up-for-anything cockiness, but his stoic resolve as well.
Boyle kicks off the movie with an avalanche of color, sound and motion, the screen split into panels of shifting activity, crowd scenes, bustling cityscapes. Gradually, the camera eye zeroes in on Aron Ralston (Franco), bombing around in his apartment. It’s Friday night, and he’s hastily packing up some gear and not answering his phone, getting ready to light out for the territory—out of the city, out of the hubbub, out of the noise and neon to one of his favorite wilderness spots in the Utah desert.
Early Saturday morning, Aron leaves his car at his makeshift campsite and speeds off on his bike for Blue John Canyon, 20 miles away. A daredevil bursting with chutzpah and hubris, he records every bone-rattling minute of his epic journey with a mini videocam strapped to his handlebars. (When a road bump sends him flying over the handlebars, he grabs the camera and records himself flat on his ass, laughing, in the dirt.) When he encounters a couple of girls hiking in the wrong direction from where they want to go, he cheerfully offers to guide them—although via a detour into a deep, subterranean cavern pool.
Not long after he leaves them, while sliding and slithering his way through a narrow ravine, a boulder slips under his weight and drags him deeper into the crevice, squashing his lower arm against the rock wall, and pinning him there. He can’t budge the rock, his bellowing for help goes unheard in the vast, empty landscape, and his attempts to chip away at the rock with the only dull blade he has (having left his Swiss Army knife at home), are not encouraging. (“Don’t buy the cheap, made-in-China moped tool,” he wisecracks into his video camera.)
While we’re face-to-face with Aron through all his various coping stages, Boyle throws in a few surprises. Aron is amazingly resourceful (he rigs up a sling so he can sleep, but can’t quite devise a pulley strong enough to move the rock), and prone to giddy fantasies (an evocative sense memory of his last girlfriend, a premonition about a future child, explosive moments of release and escape) which we, like Aron, cannot always distinguish from reality. In between, he records a caustically funny interview with himself as the “big, hard super hero” too invincible to bother to tell anyone where he was going, and learns to cherish the invaluable blessing of 15 minutes of early morning sunlight each day.
At last, Aron musters the nerve to free himself in the only possible way, before he can die of thirst, exposure, or panic. Boyle stages the sequence in a furious montage of lightning-fast cross-cutting and pounding music that cloak some of the gruesomeness without sacrificing an instant of the horror or the courage of Aron’s actions. Whatever one may think about macho yahoos testing themselves out in the wild (hint: Nature almost always wins), Boyle and Franco making a gripping movie experience out of Ralston’s amazing story.
Aron Ralston discusses his book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” in a 2004 Bookshop Santa Cruz appearance—rebroadcast Fridays on “Book TV,” (Channel 25) and streaming on CommunityTV.org.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With James Franco. Written by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy. From the book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” Directed by Danny Boyle. (R) 94 minutes.