In 2003 Aron Ralston went mountain biking and then hiking by himself in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. A freak accident resulted in a boulder falling onto his right arm, pinning him to a canyon wall. The story of Ralston’s ordeal and the extraordinary measures he took to escape have been adapted into film with stunning results. The single location and single character scenario presents an enormous challenge to filmmaker Danny Boyle who uses what seems like every cinematic technique imaginable to make the film dynamic. Time-lapse photography, strobe effects, hand held camera, forced perspective, flashbacks, montages, slow motion, point-of-view shots, split screen and sound are just some of the stylistic devices used to make the audience share Ralston’s experiences in a truly visceral way. We experience Ralston’s fantasies, hallucinations and memories. Shots from inside his water bottle constantly reinforce the drama of his dwindling water supply, shards of sound express pain and bursts of light convey the brief moments of serenity each day when the sun touches him.
Not only does Boyle’s command of film style make 127 Hours an engaging experience, but it is also impressively used throughout the film to build and develop Ralston as a character. The lengthy opening sequence leading up to the accident is shot like the sort of extreme sports film that somebody like Warren Miller could have made. As Ralston packs, drives to the park, mountain bikes and then sets out hiking, the film is an adrenaline pumping combination of rapid edits, energetic music and dramatic camera angels. We get a great sense of Ralston’s spirit and bravado. We also get a sense that he is a little self-absorbed and enjoys playing the adventurous lone hero, and this is certainly reflected in the reactions of a pair of lost female hikers that he helps out early in the film prior to the incident. The female hikers respond to his charisma and admire his enthusiasm, but they are also a little amused by his posturing.
The degree in which Ralston is selfish and self-absorbed creates most of the emotional drama for the film as he questions how he ended up in the situation that he finds himself in. Boyle begins 127 Hours with a variety of split screens showing crowds and groups of people from all over the world to emphasise the loneliness of Ralston’s future predicament. However, it also emphasises Ralston’s background of pushing other people away, including his family, friends and ex-girlfriend, and how such emotional isolationism led to the circumstances where he would go off for a weekend of adventuring without telling anybody where he was going. So while 127 Hours celebrates the achievement of an individual under extreme duress, it is also a critique of individualistic behaviour that manifests as a brutal lesson.
127 Hours reveals the natural environment to be beautiful and awe-inspiring but it can very quickly turn into a cruel and indifferent oppressor when not treated with respect. Boyle needed to cast an actor to play Ralston who had the physique of somebody who could believably survive such an ordeal as well as articulate both his charisma and his hubris. Boyle has done exactly that with the casting of James Franco who delivers an extraordinary performance. Franco captures the range of emotions that Ralston experiences from despair and depression through to triumph and euphoria. Franco keeps us cheering for Ralston and making us want to stay with him. It’s the final ingredient to want makes 127 Hours such compelling, vicarious and satisfying cinema.