“What would you have done?” That is the question people will be asking each other when they come out of Danny Boyle’s latest film. It’s based on the true story of American climber Aron Ralston who in 2003 went to Blue John Canyon, Utah, and fell down a ravine whereupon a boulder crushed his arm and pinned him to the canyon wall. He had minimal supplies and hadn’t told anyone where he was going so Ralston is left to decide what to do and how to do it.
For a film about a man stuck in a ravine, 127 Hours is incredibly cinematic. It helps that it’s set in the barren rocky desert of Utah which is staggeringly beautiful, especially in the sunlight and with the stunning aerial shots that Boyle employs. But even when the action switches to scene of Ralston’s enforced incarceration, there is little let up in the visual variation. By revisiting his recent and not so recent past, we learn something of the outdoorsman’s life, and by the time he starts getting delirious, something of his unconscious mind as well.
Because the viewer will generally knows what’s coming, part of the fun, if that’s right word, comes from the tension which builds up to the make or break moment. The mood of the film switches regularly, from perhaps the most weirdly upbeat (or is it downbeat? I still can’t decide) use of ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers to moments of total frustration and hopelessness. Carrying the entire weight of the film on his shoulders (well, his arm) is James Franco. And what a magnificent job he does too.
Showing the full range of emotions but never overdoing it, Franco is as convincing as a happy-go-lucky climber as he is as a man slowly coming to terms with his own mortality. It’s a performance full of subtle changes of feeling and there’s a decent helping of self-effacing humour which Franco pulls off convincingly – his character knows what an idiot he’s been and can see how blackly comic his situation is. But Boyle never loses sight of the full horror of Ralston’s reality and it’s a credit to one of Britain’s finest directors that despite these changes in mood it always feels utterly believable.
127 Hours is a superb piece of filmmaking, by turns beautiful, harrowing, darkly comic, awe-inspiring, horrific and utterly gripping. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that all of the above are heightened by knowing how the story ends, such is the greatness of the film. What could have been an exploitative gorefest is in fact a huge emotional rollercoaster of a film and a triumph of human spirit and survival instinct in the face of the ultimate adversity.
EXTRAS ★★★★ It's a Blu-ray Double Play, so you have two discs - a Blu-ray and a DVD. The Blu-ray extras are an audio commentary; deleted scenes, the featurette 127 Hours: Movie Premiere Special; the featurette Search & Rescue; the featurette 127 Hours: An Extraordinary View; and the short film God of Love. The DVD extras are the audio commentary, the deleted scenes and the movie premiere special.