There’s been a succession of one-location survival films lately. Last year we had the excellent Frozen (three college kids stuck at the top of a ski lift) and Buried (Ryan Reynolds buried alive) both of which made excellent use of their limited surroundings and were thrilling in different ways.
127 Hours is the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), an over-confident extreme sports nut who’s into canyoneering (for those not in the know, that’s sliding down rock faces into water-filled caves). Hiking deep into Utah’s Bluejohn Cavern on his own and without telling anyone where he’s going, he has a chance encounter with some girls. With the promise of a party later in the day, he sets off once again solo, only to have an accident which sees his arm pinned to the rock face by a ton of implacable boulder.
After five days of futile tugging, screaming for help and fruitlessly chipping away at the boulder with the small pocket knife all the while recording his thoughts and progress on a handheld video camera, Ralston decides, delirious and desperate that the only way he’s going to get out of this alive is by contemplating the unthinkable. What follows is some of the tensest cinema you’ll ever see; the resultant amputation caused nearly everyone in the cinema to visibly flinch and there’s a physical sense of relief when the deed’s finally done.
Franco is perfect as Ralston, his face (shot for the most part in close up) conveys the transition from indestructible hubristic superman to a mere frightened and fragile human being as realisation dawns that he’s immovably trapped; his initial reaction of “I can’t believe this is happening” gradually turning to desperation as his situation causes him to invent an ingenious but ultimately useless pulley system, drink his own urine, start hallucinating and eventually do something which possibly makes him one of the hardest men ever to have lived.
Danny Boyle is a director who’s never been afraid to do something new (a quick look at his CV shows almost no genre consistency at all) and here his direction is masterful, employing some clever camera techniques including an extreme zoom out of the canyon which shows Ralston’s complete isolation and an x-ray shot of his arm as he makes that first stab.
Whilst Rodrigo Cortes was very careful not to show us outside Paul Conroy’s wooden prison in Buried, with the resultant claustrophobia transferred to the viewer, Boyle takes the opposite approach, allowing Ralston’s mind to wander off on various flights of fancy – hallucinating a rainstorm, reflecting on his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and thinking of all the ways he could have avoided his fate. The effect is not so much claustrophobia but rueful frustration which makes for undeniably gripping viewing.
127 Hours is the most intense public service film you’ll ever see. Remember, “Charley says, “Always tell your mummy before you go off somewhere…””