Wednesday, March 2, 2011

127 Hours

In 2003 avid outdoorsman and adrenaline junkie Aron Ralston went out a 15 mile solo hike in Colorado's Blue John Canyon (his version of an afternoon stroll), got his arm trapped beneath a boulder, and spent the next six days trying to break free. When his makeshift system of ropes and pulleys failed and when it became clear that his cheap multi-tool knife wasn't doing much to chip away at the rock, Ralston gathered his forces and spent a good 45 minutes snapping his bones and then severing muscles, arteries, and (ouch!) live nerves with his dull blade.

I can't imagine that many people have gone into 127 Hours without knowing that it's about that guy who got stuck in a canyon and had to amputate his own arm. That's really the gist of what happens in here--Ralston gets stuck within the first 15 minutes and tears free after 127 movie-hours of anguish. No surprises in the basic storyline for anyone in the audience then. The sight of some innocent boulders in the opening scenes already drew shudders of anticipation and dread. And when the de-limbing began, I got the sense that everyone was buckling down, saying the same communal "here we go" that comes when a roller coaster is about to start  a couple hundred ft. of carefully engineered free-fall.

The amputation is certainly the big moment of 127 Hours, but Ralston's story is ripe with good stuff that goes beyond claustrophobia and gore. His predicament stems from his own self interest, his foolish risk taking, and a refusal to accept any social connections. He didn't tell anyone where he was going before his hike, and (in the movie at least) didn't care enough to respond to the worried messages his mother and sister left on his answering machine. In interviews, he readily admits that he was servile to his own adrenaline. So his rock is no ordinary slab of compressed sediment. It's not just an obstacle that tests his physical endurance, but one that tests his will to live, his will to rejoin society, and his love for his family. Also, Ralston really did suffer hallucinations in the later days of his ordeal, receiving imagined lovers, family members, and other visitors from his past and future. This is welcome news for anyone fearing that the action in the canyon would be too static and tedious.

Then again, "static" is not a word that should ever be associated with British director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire). Ugly subjects--drug abuse, crippling urban poverty-- take on another life when they meet his hyperactive camera. He combines flash backs, flash forwards, dream sequences, and a good amount of optimism to make some pretty damn energetic movies. The inspirational nature or Ralston's story certainly suits Boyle; all he needed to do for 127 Hours was strike a balance between visual panache and emotional heft.

The real Aron Ralston

Unfortunately, he's only partially successful. Before this movie, I would have easily ranked Boyle has one of modern cinema's foremost visual stylists, but now I'm starting to have my doubts. Supercharged camerawork, frantic editing, and embellishments (triple split screen, cgi, camera from POV of a straw) sometimes distract rather than add to the movie. Oftentimes, Boyle compensates for a lack of dialogue or a traditional script by adding in montages underscored by intrusive music (by Slumdog composer A.R Rahman). Sure, it can be fun to watch, and 127 Hours almost never gets boring, but it got me awfully close to going into grumpy old man mode and bringing up MTV. In fact, I just did.

Of course, this kind of impatient high-octane filmmaking kind of fits the attitude of its main character. The film does get as feverish as Ralston would have undoubtably been in the final hours of his trial. Also interesting is the fact that 127 Hours is as much about pop culture--gatorade, coke, sprite, basketball games, crowds moving in unison, Scooby Doo, digital cameras--as it is about majestic landscapes.
No one's saying that Ralston doesn't care about his natural surroundings, but this movie's focus is on his relation to other people and to mass culture.

Still, a lot could be gained from holding the camera steady and lingering on Ralston's pain. Flashbacks are permissable--no one's saying that this movie had to be as disciplined as Buried (a flawed movie in it's own right)--but these glimpses into the past could have shown more. As it is, brief vintage flavored scenes of Ralston's sister playing piano and of his father taking him to watch the sun set over the canyons are more banal than detailed. They pique our interest, but don't always bring anything substantial to the table.

Normally in a movie like this where so much is centered around one performance, it's up to the main actor to do most of the heavy lifting. But I'm not sure of how much I have to say about James Franco's Oscar nominated performance as Aron. He's good, of course--convincing and funny--but he doesn't elevate the movie in the same way Javier Bardem does for Biutiful (for example). Franco is by nature quite goofy. Judging from T.V interviews, the real Aron Ralston comes off as a bit more rational and sympathetic, easier to take seriously as a mountaineer instead of as an over-eager adventure seeking frat-boy.

127 Hours ends up relying more than it should on fancy tricks, where it should be taking time to let the gravity of the situation sink in. Even that final climactic maiming is somehow fleeting; it's violent, but it last a "mere" three minutes and aggressive music covers up the sound of crunching bones and tearing flesh. For Aron Ralston, that moment, which came after he was already resigned to his almost certain death, was the culmination of what must have seemed like a life time of inconceivable pain. For me, it was the culmination of an hour and a half of mostly pleasurable movie viewing. I just didn't feel like 127 Hours put me through all that much.

7.4 -This is the part where I say that, yes, I still liked 127 Hours, and yes, It is in many ways a good movie. Totally life affirming. Still, any Oscar nominated movie with so much critical acclaim should do better than that.

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