127 Hours is an inspirational movie. It inspired Judge Erich Asperschlager to never leave the couch again.
"It's me. I chose this. I chose all of this. This rock has been waiting for me my entire life."
We are surrounded by things designed to make us feel safe, secure, and in control—from the cars we drive to the computers that put other people no more than a click or a call away. Every once in a while, however, our comfortable lives are derailed by forces of nature. Earthquakes and hurricanes reduce cities to rubble, reminding us just how little control we actually have. Fortunately, those times of crisis are usually marked by an outpouring of support from the worldwide community—people coming together to help others in need. But what happens when there's no one around to help?
Facts of the Case
Director Danny Boyle examines that question in 127 Hours. Based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the film tells the story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber and canyoneer who, during a solo descent into Utah's Blue John Canyon in April of 2003, fell and got his arm trapped under a boulder. He hadn't told anyone where he was going, so no one knew he was missing until well into his six day imprisonment. Pushed to the physical and mental breaking point, Ralston did what he had to do to survive, and finally to break free.
Unless you've never heard of this movie or of Aron Ralston's story, there's a good chance you know the ending. If you don't, I won't spoil it. As climactic and cathartic as that ending is, however, 127 Hours is more about the first 126 hours of Aron's imprisonment than the shocking final minutes. Ralston admits in his memoir to being cocky and reckless, which explains why he went out into a dangerous wilderness alone, without telling anyone. There are life-changing experiences and then there's getting trapped in the middle of nowhere with almost no hope of rescue. Ralson's story is shocking, but it's also uplifting. The confluence of events that resulted in his being found, and the strength of will that took him from a crack in the earth back to civilization makes the kind of inspirational tale that Hollywood loves to tell, but rarely does right. Apparently that's because Hollywood doesn't hire Danny Boyle.
Boyle's deft cinematic vision and passion for Ralston's experience give 127 Hours emotional heft. Boyle re-created the narrow canyon Ralston was trapped in on a soundstage, and forced his camera operators, lighting crew, and lead actor to shoot the bulk of the movie in a confined space. The dedication to authenticity gives the film a claustrophobia that comes not only from the setting, but the tight angles and restricted movement resulting from the actor and cameras being so uncomfortably close.
Although there are some fine supporting performances from Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara—as the hikers Ralston encountered shortly before his accident—and a variety of friends and family that show up in flashbacks, 127 Hours lives and dies by James Franco's performance as Aron. Having to act alone, in one location is a hugely difficult task, but he makes it look easy. Most of Franco's lines are spoken to the handheld video camera Ralston brought with him as part of his almost compulsive documentation of his adventures. These monologues range from confessionals to goodbyes to near-delusional rants. The rest of Franco's performance is purely physical. Even with the limitations of a confined space, he throws himself fully into Ralston's desperate situation—slamming his body against an unmovable boulder, stretching a foot to reach a ray of sunlight, and scraping a dull knife blade against his skin. Though understated at times, Franco brings a thoughtful intensity to the role, showing a great deal of respect for the audience and for Aron himself.
Franco's remarkable performance is only part of what makes 127 Hours such a moving film. Although Danny Boyle's frenetic directorial style might seem like an odd fit with Ralston's story, it works amazingly well. In other movies, stylized visuals and quick edits put a barrier between the audience and what's happening onscreen, but in 127 Hours Boyle's direction makes Aron's predicament more real, and his sacrifice more visceral. He juxtaposes solitude and bustle, the unforgiving landscape with the comforts we take for granted. The film kicks off with a triptych of crowd scenes, combining and collapsing until we meet Aron and follow him from city to wilderness. The tight shots, extreme camera angles, and jarring edits bring us into Ralston's mindset. We don't just see his deterioration, we feel it. By putting the camera inside a water tube, at eye level with an ant, and even inside Aaron's ruined body, Boyle creates a visual approximation of the way crisis throws even the smallest detail into sharp relief.
As Aaron's mind wanders to all the places he'd rather be and people he'd rather be with, Boyle uses those flashbacks and hallucinations to take us out of the claustrophobic canyon, if only for a few minutes. A lesser director might have used these flights of fancy as a crutch, focusing more on Aron's backstory than his predicament, but Boyle is never lazy about what he shows. He chooses only those moments that underscore Ralston's shaky emotional state. Even so, Boyle struggles to maintain the momentum as Aron's imprisonment drags on. Ralston's crisis starts and ends with a bang, but when his fantasies morph into an extended fever dream near the end, the visual onslaught is overwhelming. Boyle's layered style works well everywhere else, but the run up to Aron's escape goes on longer than necessary to convince the audience what he already knows: there's only one way out. Speaking of which…
(Spoiler Warning: If you don't already know what happens at the end of the story, skip ahead to the next paragraph) Aron Ralston became famous not only for getting trapped in the desert, but for cutting off his own arm to escape. The amputation scene is the hardest thing to watch in 127 Hours (as it should be), but the gore is as much implied as it is shown. What makes it so difficult isn't the blood or the obvious pain, but the 75-minute emotional rollercoaster leading up to Aron's escape. Unlike most of the blood that's casually spilled onscreen, Boyle and Franco earn every gasp and grimace.
127 Hours is one of the best looking and sounding Blu-rays I've reviewed in a long time. The 1.85:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is gorgeous, rich with detail and a color palette as wide open as the Utah skies. Boyle uses a variety of source material, including 2003-era handheld video, but everything is as sharp as it ought to be, without any trace of artifacting or edge enhancement. Detail is most evident in the close-up shots (and there are a lot). Whether in low light or sun-drenched rocky landscape, it's a beautiful film. Boyle's eye for detail finds a strong partner in the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. With its relentless rhythm and focus on solo guitar, A.R. Rahman's score captures Aron's nuanced loneliness. It's supported by judicious use of licensed songs by Bill Withers, Esther Phillips, Free Blood, Sigur Rós, and even the theme song from Scooby-Doo. The mix is peppered with audio cues and effects that range from wall-shaking thunderstorms to quietly shifting sand. Though front-heavy, the track extends to the rear speakers and bass to create a vast, immersive soundscape.
Besides the obligatory digital copy of the film, 127 Hours on Blu-ray has a solid grouping of bonus features, all in HD. You can find longer bullet lists on other Blu-rays, but as any experienced hiker knows, you should only pack what you need.
• For the broadest discussion of the filmmaking process and Ralston's real story, there's a feature-length commentary with Danny Boyle, producer Christian Colson, and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. They talk about Aron and what it was like adapting his experiences to the screen, point out major themes and ideas (like how often water is shown in the early scenes), share production anecdotes, and praise Franco's performance.
• Deleted Scenes (34:13)—seven in all. The first six run a total of 12 minutes and include an extended version of the sequence with Aron and the women he meets at the beginning of his trip, and several video messages to his family. The last is a 22-minute alternate ending that, while interesting, mostly shows just how great the theatrical ending is. The version that appears in the film is an affective, largely dialogue-free montage set to Rahman's jubilant score. The collection of images, including a shot of the real Ralston and his family, captures the essence of the whirlwind surrounding Aron's rescue and his second chance at life. The alternate ending is more on-the-nose, with scenes that read like studio notes. In one, Aron's mother is by his side when he wakes up in the hospital and she actually says "If you ever do something like this again…" In another, he sits down at a piano with his sister on her wedding day and they play "Heart and Soul" together. I'm not saying this ending would have ruined the movie, but I am saying that whoever decided to cut everything except what appears in the finished movie deserves an Oscar just for that.
• "Search and Rescue" (14:51) The story of what happened to Aron after his escape, and the longshot rescue mission launched by friends and family to find him without knowing where he was, is every bit as exciting as what happened in Blue John Canyon. This is that story, told by the people who took part, including the real Aron Ralston, and his mother.
• "127 Hours: An Extraordinary View" (35:30) This making-of featurette focuses on the near-impossible task of filming in the cramped canyon set, the movie's climactic sequence, and shooting on location in Utah.
• Last, but not at all related to 127 Hours is the 2011 Oscar-winning live-action short film, God of Love (18:46). Written, directed, and starring the wild-haired Luke Matheney, it's the quirky story of a jazz singer who is given a box of magic darts with the power to make anyone fall in love with him for exactly six hours. It's got nothing to do with the feature film, and it's not even listed on the back of the case, but it's a cool little add.
What happened to Aron Ralston is a chilling reminder of the power of nature. It's also a testament to the resilience and strength of people in times of crisis. Aron wasn't a hero. His cocky recklessness was largely responsible for what happened to him. But he acted heroically in the face of death.
Even if Aron Ralston didn't exist, 127 Hours would be a remarkable film—not only for the gripping and inspirational story is tells, but the way director Danny Boyle tells it. It was made by talented people who understand the power of pictures, performance, and sound to create a moving experience.
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