Now open across the UK, Danny Boyle takes the goodwill generated from “feelgood film of the year” Slumdog Millionaire and makes a film about a guy who cuts his own arm off.
Me love Danny Boyle long time. Anyone who knows me or has ever listened to me babble for more than a couple of minutes will know this as I think I am likely the world’s biggest fan of his film Sunshine. A lot of his work has been terrific obviously, but that film is the cream of the crop for me. In terms of critical reception, his greatest succeses are probably Trainspotting and for sure, Slumdog Millionaire the little film that could and indeed did, running off with awards left, right and centre a couple of years ago. After this, Boyle was the hottest property in Hollywood and was offered many projects, he was very close to making a new version of My Fair Lady for example, but instead he used his new cache to make a bit of a passion project and almost the definition of a hard sell, the real life tale of Aron Ralston and the worst 127 hours of his life.
Aron Ralston (James Franco) is an engineer by day, adrenaline junkie by night who one day decides to cut off all possible communication and head out to go for a bit of thrillseeking. On this occasion however things go wrong and he soon finds himself at the bottom of a ravine, his hand trapped under a boulder, and exhaustion and dehydration soon take their toll and Aron realises he has to take drastic action to get out.
From the very opening of 127 Hours, it is made obvious that this is a Danny Boyle film as we are treated to a hyper-kinetic and undoubtedly thrilling opening 20 minutes or so as we are introduced to the fast-paced world of Ralston using split screens, repeated images and a variety of different camera sources to present the image of a man who seems to constantly keep moving and is certainly charming while also having a real sense of arrogance which we already know will be his undoing. Still, the presence of James Franco makes him more endearing than he might have otherwise had been being all smiles, jokes and having good spirits while also maybe doing a subtle bit of skirt chasing. This section is hectic but in terms of getting used to this world, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like similarly themed film Buried before it, 127 Hours faced its biggest challenge in just how you are able to make a film about one guy trapped and have it remain interesting. Buried had far less space to use but the benefit of a mobile phone whereas 127 Hours sees Franco have room enough to move but no way of having any real conversations or interactions with anyone once he is stuck. The way that Boyle manages to play this out is in switching between our God’s eye view of the action but also by going into the mind’s eye of Ralston, sometimes we know from the start, sometimes not and this stuff is somewhat of a mixed bag. Thanks to some wonderful editing and a nice line in surrealism, when Ralston’s mind starts to wander images from his minds eye start to seem to invade his real world, the image of an inflatable Scooby Doo seeming ridiculous early on soon becomes something more unsettling when its flashing up in the dark corner of the ravine for example. This stuff is heightened as the film goes on and also becomes more problematic, more of which later, but this “mind’s eye” approach also offers interesting insights into Ralston himself, he is a man who seems to want to be one with nature but finds his mind’s thinking of fluid drifting towards ads for Coke or Sunkist and not just plain water and when he starts talking to himself it takes the form of an in studio interview, complete with cheesy host and canned laughter, something which doesn’t really work on screen, feeling too goofy and also exposition filled, but the way Ralston is obviously infected by pop culture while being stuck so very far away from that real exposure fleshes out and adds a level of sad realism to him.
In the first half of the film, it makes a fair bit of effort in saying that this is a man who is a bit of an idiot and brought this on himself, indeed at one point he admits this himself so when in the second half, the tables seem to be turned, my opinion of the film went from impressed to… kinda annoyed. Now I do not need the film to hammer away at the idea that Ralston “deserved” all of this, and just on the level of empathy for another human being, I already want him to get out of this situation but for Boyle, composer AR Rahman and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy to suddenly spend the last half hour of the film thrusting in my face the idea that Ralston is some sort of hero and for flat out mythologising the man’s efforts in some really subtle as a sledgehammer ways is something I did not expect. Ralston’s visions become more intimate, suddenly his family and friends are all around him and he sees visions of a young boy playing. What could this all mean I wonder? Other people are what real life is made of? I saw the same point far more poignantly made when Sean Penn did it in Into The Wild thank you very much. And what’s this? The score cranks up to some of the most overly triumphant crowd baiting stuff I have heard in quite some time when Ralston manages to find other people? Oh and what is this??? Real life imagery of Ralston doing more extreme things after this incident? ISN’T THAT INSPIRATIONAL?
ISN’T IT? APPLAUD DAMN YOU!
People have accused Slumdog Millionaire of just going for a crowd pleasing ending but in that film the characters are victims of the lives they were born into, not of their own stupidity so when they overcome the many levelled things opposing them, it is genuinely heartwarming. Again, I do not expect the film to just berate Ralston for the entire runtime but to try and turn the story into, I’m going to say it, straight up Oscar bait feels beneath the talent involved and really feels like a cop out.
127 Hour is a film I expected to have a great deal of time for. The fact that it is a “one and done” for me is a great disappointment, as while the film has some great elements, a nice central performance from Franco, cracking visuals and some top drawer editing and cinematography, it is undone by what it is set up as being, a triumphant tale of an idiot who overcomes his own stupidity and becomes a hero for it.
Oh and notice I didn’t mention “that scene”? Anyone who does actually faint at that has a. Never ever seen blood on screen or b. Believed the hype so much that they have willed themselves into that state long before its actually on screen. Yes it’s bloody, yes it’s mildly intense but it’s also not nearly as bad as I had expected.