In April 2003, twentysomething American hiker Aron Ralston fell into a crevasse in Utah’s isolated Blue John Canyon. An 800 pound boulder fell with him, landing on his right arm and pinning him against a rock wall and trapping him for the 127 Hours of the title. Director Danny Boyle’s follow up to his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire is a story of survival, obviously, but the director and writer Simon Beaufoy, working from Ralston’s book 'Between A Rock And A Hard Place', expand the gruesome true story into a coming-of-age tale in which a young man facing death assesses how he has lived his life to that point.
The film opens without preamble with an excited Ralston (James Franco) hurriedly preparing for a long bike ride and trek through his favourite wilderness. A couple of hours into the trek, he meets a pair of young women hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), shows them a few of the area’s sights and continues on his way. Shortly afterwards, distracted by the thoughts of the young women’s party invitation, he falls and gets stuck. Jammed against the rock face in a position that would bring tears to the eyes of a yogi, Ralston has only a bottle of water, a small amount of food, his climbing gear and a blunt all-purpose tool with which to survive. Nobody knows he is there and the chances of a rescuer stumbling by are remote.
From then on, which means for most of the ninety-five-minute running time, we’re alone with Franco in a ditch so narrow the light from the sun only enters for a precious fifteen minutes a day. An experienced engineer and enthusiastic outdoorsman, he first attempts to hack at the stone with his dull knife before rigging a complicated rope system to try and extract himself. Nothing works. His mind wandering through exhaustion and dehydration, Ralston ruminates on his short life and imminent death; recalling his family and friends, his ex-girlfriend Rana (Clémence Poésy) and the future life he will not now live in a series of vivid dreams and surreal hallucinations. As his options dwindle, the visions darken. If he is going to get out alive, he must do the unthinkable and amputate his own arm.
The magpie Boyle never makes the same kind of film twice but if there is a running thread through all of his work it is his ability to capture and distil the energy of youth; exuberant, sometimes thoughtless but always quick and exciting. He has the perfect lead in James Franco who plays Ralston as a cocksure thrill-seeker who races out into the world without a thought for his own safety, telling no-one where he is going, looking for total freedom. He finds the exact opposite; a prison made of red rocks and sand. It’s a credit to the director that he doesn’t flinch from depicting the terrible reality of what Ralston had to do to free himself. Squeamish audience members can always shut their eyes (as I did) during the worst of it but, ever the sensationalist, Boyle extends the torture with teeth-grinding sound effects, doubling the intensity of what is already an extreme moment.
For all his recklessness, Ralston’s accumulated regrets amount to little more than white lies, social gaffes and graceless behaviour, a scattered few incidents of awkward stupidity common to all young men. Deep in the pit with death creeping closer, he comes to understand the simple joy in being alive, the importance of family and friendship and the need to be kind.There isn't a lot of suprise to be found in the lessons Ralston learned, what is astonishing is that he lived to learn them.