The human instinct to remain alive despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles is the central theme of “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle’s new film “127 Hours.” The movie follows the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), an adventurous yet somewhat eccentric extreme sports enthusiast, who explores the mountains of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Based on Ralston’s autobiography “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” the film recreates the adventurer’s traumatic five-day ordeal when he finds himself trapped by a boulder that has pinned his right arm.
As Ralston struggles to survive with just one arm, a video camera to keep him company, and a small backpack of limited supplies, the truly dire nature of his predicament quickly becomes apparent. Ralston’s water supply diminishes and his food rations are soon depleted. What then unfolds is the compelling story of a man who remembers why he wants to live, and how much he has to lose if he takes his last breath in those perilous mountains.
The film gives over almost all of its screen time to Franco, bringing the inner life of the character to the forefront of the film. Franco’s only interaction with others—prior to the film’s closing moments—is at the outset of the story, when he encounters a pair of female travelers. But despite being cut off from human contact for most of the film, Franco manages to convey Ralston’s eccentricity convincingly in the face of imminent death by expressing a mixture of panic, fear, and humorous attempts to remain sane.
Talking to his handy-cam as if he were a TV host, Franco makes fun of his situation and laughs at his own stupidity in not telling his friends he was going out to the mountains. This element of self-reflection adds a much needed dimension to Boyle’s one-man show; it enables “127 Hours” to avoid becoming about James Franco making meaningful faces at the audience for an hour or so while his life flashes before his eyes. Given this creative latitude, the actor delivers a superb performance.
The visual elements of Ralston’s reflections, memories, and near-death experience, beautifully crafted by Boyle, bring the fullness of life and love to this ostensibly gritty, claustrophobic story. One striking scene comes as Ralston’s need for water reaches the breaking point and, in a dream sequence, he imagines the heavens opening and water dripping into the crack in which he is stuck. The intensity of his situation is emphasized as the rain continues to gush through, almost drowning Ralston in the downpour. Suddenly, Ralston is seen running through the rain to reach the house of his ex-girlfriend. The possibility of rekindling the flame of a lost love overrides the desire for water.
In this psychedelic manner, Ralston’s personal and inner life is given prominence while the physical necessities of human life confronting him are sidelined. However, while these visions—drawn from Ralston’s actual account—provide fascinating insight into a man who is about to lose everything, the scenes tend to detract from the portrayal of the anguish of a truly desperate man.
But at the price of this element of realism, Boyle is able to present a powerful portrait of mental liberation during physical entrapment. In Boyle’s and Franco’s capable hands, a story of despair becomes one about the ideas and emotions which fuel the human determination to live on.