Danny Boyle's 127 Hours is most effective when it's asking us hard questions directly: What would you do if you were physically trapped in the wilderness, alone but for bugs and rocks? Where would your thoughts go? What sort of triumphant escape would you imagine in hopeful moments? And how far would you go to take necessary control of the situation?
Carrying over the loud style of his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle introduces Utah engineer Aron Ralston (General Hospital's James Franco) as he flees the city for a weekend in the canyons. There's a colorful, almost overbearing energy to a montage of Aron's early hours in the wild; it's clear that he's a seasoned outdoorsman, and that his weekend exploration is what makes him happy. He explains as much to a pair of college girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he encounters, giving them directions and then convincing them perhaps too easily to let him "guide" them. (Franco's amiability somehow sells it.) There's a flirtation as they spend the afternoon adventuring, but they go their separate ways with a party invitation. "Look for the giant inflatable Scooby-Doo," he's told.
And then, once again miles away from the nearest person, Aron misjudges a boulder and ends up pinned in a crevice, and Boyle punctuates the scene with the title credit. 127 Hours is a close adaptation of the real-life Ralston's autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place, based on his own 2003 experience. You may not recall how the story turns out, but it's not a huge spoiler to say that things get a little messy. (Recent trailers have gone a little too far in concealing how heavy the movie really gets.) Boyle teases the ugly inevitability from the start, as Aron fumbles with his pocket knife and then goes to work chipping away at the imprisoning rock. The blade quickly dulls, and the rock survives. Later, as he whizzes into a water bottle just in case, he realizes a medical application for its long rubber straw.
A steady stream of less grisly concerns also present themselves over the course of five days, and the film explicitly presents the practicalities of survival. Aron takes an inventory of his backpack, deals with the cold of night, and learns what time of day he gets 15 minutes of sunlight. In less active moments he considers his error in not answering a Friday phone call from his mother, telling her his weekend plans. A video camera, used early on to underline a vague narcissism, becomes a means of leaving a record of his experience, and of offering good-byes.
There's a universality to all of it, and Boyle shapes the sequence of events logically, so our unavoidable personal reflections stay in sync with Aron's. A scene on the second day sends down signs of possible rescue as Aron tapes a message to his parents. He begins screaming wildly, as anyone would, and by the end Aron has worn out his throat with desperation. Where the scene goes from there is as quietly excruciating as anything in the finale.
It becomes a problem for 127 Hours, though, that despite its efforts Aron Ralston is never as interesting as his situation. Memories, fantasies, and simple train of thought fill in background information and emotional color, most of it involving either Aron's parents and sister or a failed love affair. (He also catches the inflatable Scooby-Doo out of the corner of his eye one night, a rough reminder of a future taken for granted.) Though Boyle is smart to resist lingering on these scenes—even if any residual drama could stack up to the matter at hand, indulging in flashbacks would derail the film's necessary momentum—he errs on the side of vagueness, and nothing we learn about Aron coalesces in any dramatically useful way, keeping us at a distance.
We feel for him, and his peril is spellbinding, but 127 Hours fails in that we spend so much time alone with Aron Ralston and never find a way get to know him. It remains a thought-provoking film, possibly even worthy of low-key Oscar buzz, but you can't help feeling for a guy whose harrowing story gets made into a movie that has so little interest in the life at stake.