When I first heard about 127 Hours, I thought, “Yeah, right. Like I’m really going to watch a rock for 90 minutes.” But, the buzz was good and I like James Franco so I went for it. Turns out it was excellent.
127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a climber and canyoneer who was out for an adventure and found one - just not the kind he was expecting. While en route to the big drop at Blue John Canyon, Aron’s right arm got crushed and caught by a boulder. Unable to move the boulder, Aron, after being stuck there for six days - 127 hours - makes the life-saving decision to amputate his own arm (with a dull knife) and escape. Aron’s story as depicted in the movie - particularly the ending, post-amputation - might seem hard to believe, contrived even, but the inspiring thing is that it is true.
(Possible spoilers beyond this point. While we all know the ending, I am going to talk about some specifics of the middle.)
Over the course of a very fast 90 minutes, we watch Aron go on a journey, even though he’s stuck in one place for about 90% of the time. The movie begins with bright colors, chaotic scenes and a pulsing score. (Familiar territory for director Danny Boyle.) We see Aron prepping for his trek, ignoring a phone call from his sister and not telling his friends where he’s going. He arrives at the base of the canyon, rests in his truck for the night and when the sun rises, so does he. Aron bursts out of the truck and sets off.
Here’s the remarkable thing: This set up is crucial to the success of the movie. We, the audience, have to immediately like Aron so that we can survive the six days with him. These expository moments are just right. We get the chance to see that Aron loves the journey. When he is racing up the mountain and gets tripped up, tumbling off his bike, he laughs, smiles and takes a picture of his stumble. It’s really all about the ride and there seems, to me, to be something humble and appealing about that. Then he meets two young ladies who are lost. He offers to be there guide and is thoroughly charming as he helps them to their destination, showing them a
beautiful, tucked away oasis along the way. Shortly after leaving the ladies, Aron starts to make his way through a crevasse. Though he checks the stability of the rocks and branches as he goes, disaster hits when the boulder comes crushing down on his right arm.
Over the course of the next six days, Aron must figure out how to survive. He has little water and almost no food; no cell phone to use to call for help; no leverage to move the boulder. He does have a video camera. Seeming to have accepted that he is in his final resting place, he uses the camera to say his final goodbyes to his loved ones. These are incredibly touching moments, interspersed with flashbacks to his time growing up and to his mistakes (with a girlfriend) of the recent past. While Aron is taking stock of his life, he’s also starting to lose his mind. (Six days of nothingness will do that to you.) Some of the hallucinations are hilarious; some of them are frightening; some of them are tremendously moving. Just when Aron seems to have given up hope, his past flooding back to him and his present almost coming to an end, Aron has a revelation about the future that gives him just enough hope to persevere. He proceeds to break and cut off his arm, finally escaping from the boulder. The look on James Franco’s face as Aron looks at the boulder that almost cost him his life - one of contempt and disgust, with a slight sense of having vanquished his foe - is brilliant.
But the journey’s not over yet. Aron still has to get down the mountain and find sustenance and medical attention. In other words, Aron (who we’ve learned thinks of himself as a hard hero) needs help. As he’s about to collapse in the desert, he thinks he spots some people ahead of him. He tries to call for help but his voice doesn’t work at first. Finally, sounds come out and the people come running. Then more people and finally a helicopter, bringing him to safety.
This movie was the most intense thing I’ve ever sat through. It’s amazing that, even while knowing Aron’s ultimate fate, the time he spent fighting with the boulder was still gripping. There are some really terrific cinematic moments in 127 Hours. I’m thinking in particular of the devastatingly ironic use of Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.” Being an engineer and a man of action, Aron creates a pulley, of sorts. The song plays as Aron tries to use this pulley to move the boulder. “It’s gonna be a lovely day, lovely day, lovely day” plays as Aron looks at the boulder in anguish, realizing it won’t budge an inch.
James Franco really gives an incredible performance here. He goes through a roller coaster of emotions as Aron stays in one place and there’s never a false moment. Especially poignant are the moments when Aron is making his videos. What begins as something very funny - Aron pretends he’s on a talk show and carries on a conversation with himself (Franco putting on different voices and reminding viewers he can be pretty goofy) - turns in to something incredibly sad and heart wrenching, as Aron realizes he brought himself to this place.
I was amazed at how quickly the movie passed by and by how enthralling it was. You might think that watching someone trapped under a rock can’t make a movie - but it does. 127 Hours is thoroughly gripping, intense, emotional and, ultimately, inspirational.