The opening of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is a split-screen blitzkrieg that collages images of busy stock exchanges, nine-to-fivers moving up and down via escalators, and fools running from the bulls at Pamplona, among other frenetic sights, with scenic shots of Aron Ralston (James Franco) giddily driving, biking, and hiking his way toward the Blue John Canyon where, in May 2003, he would famously amputate the lower part of his right arm after a boulder pinned him against a canyon wall. Evocative of Madonna’s party-hardy, Koyaanisqatsi-cribbing “Ray of Light” music video, this muddled patchwork superficially unites people across cultures by how they move to vaguely convey Ralston’s particularly unbridled daredevil spirit, though it more distinctly functions as an example of Boyle’s own abrasive need for speed.
Until Ralston falls into the canyon that would appear to seal his death, 127 Hours is akin to an especially busy Mountain Dew commercial, all obscenely over-scored shots of Ralston—recorded from swooping hawks-eye-view perspectives—treating Canyonlands National Park as his playground. Sometimes he’ll take a breather atop a purty stretch of rockland and Boyle will frame the rugged dude’s king-of-the-world posturing from below, a plane skirting across the sky and leaving a streak of exhaust behind. But rather than elaborate on Ralston’s particular Boy’s Life adventure, illuminating why it’s so unique, Boyle’s poppy conceptual razzmatazz simply suggests the man as a contestant on America’s Next Top Mountain Climber, all style for the sake of style.
“I don’t think we figured into his day at all,” says one of two lost girls Ralston meets on his adventure, diving torpedo-like with them into a gorgeously blue underground river before resuming his solo canyoneering, though not before being invited to a hotel party he’ll locate by the enormous Scooby-Doo balloon hanging out back. The girl’s line to her friend is a narratively portentous one that also manages to say a lot about Ralston’s nature, specifically the way he lives inside his head and comes across as a carefree—possibly careless—spirit to everyone. But this guy’s attitude, more Zen than self-absorbed, doesn’t justify the film’s audio-visual assault on the audience’s senses; Ralston is chill and Boyle’s misbegotten aesthetic doodling, like A.R. Rahman’s relentless, techno-infused score, would more accurately befit a crack addict’s nature-trailing.
Boyle’s artistry capitalizes on his audience’s attention-deficit disorders. He probably felt that Ralston wasn’t a particularly interesting subject for a film and that the horror he endured, while certainly harrowing, was a visually inert one. His fear of the film 127 Hours could have been is even echoed by critics such as Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman when they ask, “How do you rivet an audience when your protagonist can’t even move?” To Boyle, drama isn’t exciting if it doesn’t move, and if Ralston can’t do so then the director sure as hell makes it seem as if everything around the guy is in a constant state of motion.
There are a few sensualist grace notes: In the way Ralston rubs his hands against rocks and stretches his feet to reach the burning sunlight that spills into his prison for some 15 minutes a day, you comprehend his crisis as a struggle for freedom. But Boyle makes us feel the man’s imprisonment by torturing us with inexplicable visual flourishes, as in the frequent shots of the churning machinery inside Ralston’s ever-recording camcorder. Indeed, you may leave 127 Hours feeling as if you know what makes a camera tick more than you do the man at the film’s center.
The five days Ralston spends trapped inside Blue John Canyon, with little water and even less food, gets the Requiem for a Dream treatment, his life passing before his eyes as a kinetic flurry of visions from his past and the future he feels he will never have. Whether amusing, like a surprise visit from Scooby-Doo, or heart-wrenching, such as the way he imagines himself and a group of friends getting naked inside a car while the sky pours snow outside, you believe that Ralston had these hallucinations even as you scoff at their ostentatious representation. A raven soars overhead in slow-mo and the exhaust of a series of planes creates a grid-like pattern in the sky—and the audience wonders if Ralston dreams of being a graphic designer.
Ralston had no girlfriend at the time of his accident, but because the film necessitates a love story, he hallucinates visions of all the girls he had before and the ones he will never have. In one great scene, he entertains masturbation while playing back the video he took of himself and the lost girls in the underground river only to stop himself short, perhaps out of fear that he may die shortly after ejaculating and that his corpse will be discovered with its pants down. Franco’s poignant performance makes lucid the simultaneous horror and absurdity of Ralston’s situation; the way Franco never loses sight of Ralston’s sense of joy even as he painfully regrets his mistakes, such as the potentially life-saving call from his parents that he didn’t pick up days earlier, opens a small window into a man’s appetite for survival, but a better film would have elaborated on how Ralston was transformed by this unbelievable experience.
Ralston carves his own epitaph into the wall of rock adjacent to him and, after he’s free, Franco’s gaze soulfully connects that moment with a series of Native American wall paintings that catch his eye. The message is clear: I too was here. Pity that Boyle’s own imprints so infuriatingly undermine the great feeling of Franco’s performance. When Ralston decides to eat his contacts for whatever nutrients they may contain, you wish Boyle would have allowed us a view of Franco’s face, so we could have fully taken in the character’s sad desperation; instead, he bombards us with meaningless shots of Ralston’s bloodshot, dilated eyes. And when the character finally figures out how to cut off part of his arm, what most lingers in the mind isn’t his pain, but how the sound of Ralston slicing his tendons is synched on the soundtrack to ear-splitting feedback that might have been more apt coming from the mouths of The Lord of the Rings‘s Dark Riders.
Werner Herzog, a poet who comprehends—as suggested by our own Ed Howard—the poignancy and absurdity that runs concurrent throughout human endeavors, regardless of time and place, would have certainly emphasized the lonely silence that tormented Ralston along with pain, fatigue, hunger, and thirst. Boyle tramples on reality, misrepresents it, gussies it up so audiences won’t be as bored as Ralston surely must have been during those 127 hours. In the end, a heroic man’s perseverance gets a shrill ad man’s makeover.