Danny Boyle is a director of immense talent. His varied approach to filmmaking and refusal to stick too close to one genre is admirable and refreshing in this cinematic age of rehashes and remakes. He has tackled horror (28 Days Later), science fiction (Sunshine), drama (Trainspotting), romance (Slumdog Millionaire) and family films (Millions). His versatility to the craft of film is awe inspiring. So why am I so letdown by his latest based-on-a-true-story character piece 127 Hours? While not bad—in fact, I’m recommending it—127 Hours is nevertheless an uneven film with enough questionable decisions to keep it from reaching greatness.
Seven years ago, an adventurous man named Aron Ralston took a trip to Blue John Canyon in Utah to climb through its many crevices for sport. While descending a long, narrow passage, a giant rock broke off and wedged between the two walls, catching one of Aron’s hands and trapping him down there. His arm eventually died and the rest of his body was soon to follow, so after days of struggling, he cut through his flesh and bone and escaped what he thought was going to be his tomb.
James Franco plays Aron and, much like Ryan Reynolds in the recent thriller Buried, he is forced to carry the movie virtually by himself. However, when compared to that similar film, as is inevitable, 127 Hours pales in many respects. What this movie does, unfortunately, is leave the scene of the dilemma far too often, something Buried so skillfully avoided throughout its equally short runtime. It gets sidetracked too easily with quick cutaways to spontaneous fantasies and memories from Aron’s past.
Instead of keeping us there in that tight space and forcing us to feel how the character feels, it foolishly snaps us away from the action (or lack thereof) to show us trivial back stories, like how Aron lost his most recent girlfriend. One of the key differences between this and Buried is that the latter film never bothered with any of that because it didn’t matter. Buried was carried by raw emotion. This tries to trick us into feeling something. At numerous points in the film, we see and hear what is going on in Aron’s head and at one point, a laugh track is even used. I’m not kidding.
That scene in question, which is only one of many, is intended primarily for laughs. The movie, though certainly more dramatic than comedic, too often makes light of the situation. For instance, a long, sped up tracking shot that travels from the spot Aron is stuck to the back of his car miles away where a Gatorade sits is meant as a humorous way to show off his dehydration, but there's nothing funny about what this man went through.
There are so many missteps in 127 Hours, it boggles the mind. But what that really goes to show is how crucial a good performance and capable direction can be. While Franco is very good, it’s Danny Boyle who steals the show. Although it begins with an excess of hyperactive editing and annoying split screen, Boyle quickly calms it down and directs with an assured hand, spicing up the proceedings with some nifty point of view shots and canted camera angles that serve to make the mountainside look ferociously steep and scary.
It isn’t until about 15 minutes in that the title card appears and Aron finds himself stuck. This simple, but effective little detail works not only as a way to remind the audience what they’re watching, but warn them that things are just beginning and the worst is yet to come. I suppose that is 127 Hours’ greatest strength. Everything before that fateful moment is meant to build his character, label his personality and make us care about him and it works. It’s because of that smart calculation that I was able to look past some of the film's faults. It’s nothing enthralling, and I doubt Boyle will be clutching a Best Picture Oscar come awards season, but this story is worth experiencing all the same.
127 Hours receives 2.5/5