MOVIE RATING: 4.5 stars (A-)
(Updated February 19, 2012)
Now that I’ve had a few weeks to process director Danny Boyle’s latest film, 127 Hours (2010), I can discuss it without the incredible emotional turmoil that I felt when leaving the theater after seeing this film. I can’t really think of too many other films that have “played” with me emotionally like this one does, except maybe the first time I saw Dead Poets Society (1989) in the theater as a teenager. I felt completely exhausted and broken emotionally for a few hours after 127 Hours, not sure if I liked the movie or not! Definitely not an easy film to watch in my mind. And yet now, with at least as many hours as the title of the film under my belt, I feel I can safely say that this is one of the best movies of 2010. Having only seen it once in the theater, I’m going to give it an initial rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars. My instincts are telling me that I may feel like its an even better film upon a second viewing, which I definitely intend to give it when it comes out on Blu-ray in a month. This is a movie that has a lot of emotional depth and filmmaking craft to it that needs time to swallow, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it moves up in my ratings over the years. But we’ll see…for now I’ll stick with my initial analysis.
James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, the guy who this true story is inspired by. You might remember Ralston’s story in the news back in 2003. Who wasn’t shocked by the story of guy cutting off his own arm to save his life?! Definitely movie-making material in the right hands. There’s no question in my mind that this is Franco’s best work ever. Honestly, it had to be in order to make this movie even tolerable. I mean Franco is really all we have in the movie to keep our interest, and he does so very well. Franco’s emotional roller-coaster ride of dealing with his arm being stuck under a rock is a feast to partake in. I was constantly wiping the tears away from my eyes as I went with him on this incredible journey, wondering if he was going to be able to do what he had to do…even though I knew he would. I will admit that this was a very hard movie to get through. While Franco is constantly looking at his watch in the movie, counting down the hours and days he’s been stuck with his hand under a rock, I did the same in the theater. I found myself continually looking at my phone to see what time it was. I couldn’t wait to get through this experience since it was so unbearable to watch and listen to as it builds to the expected climax. After the film, I thought more and more about how Danny Boyle probably intended that response from me, because the film definitely made me feel like I was stuck right there with Ralston, trying to get out. I mean we knew the outcome going in, so how do you engage your viewers? You make them feel on a very visceral level the same thoughts and emotions that Ralston felt while trapped under a rock. And I gotta give it to Boyle because I’m not sure too many other directors could’ve pulled it off at all, let alone as well as Boyle does here.
It’s almost a given that the cinematography should be outstanding on a film set in the canyonlands of Utah…what with the famous desert southwest sky and golden lighting. Directors of Photography Enrique Chediak and Anthony Dod Mantle absolutely aced their presentation of this wild and rugged landscape, presenting it in both classic compositions that the great landscape photographers of the 20th century have perfected (like Ansel Adams, David Muench, and Jack Dykinga), as well as with a fresh, hyperkinetic look and feel that gave the millions-of-years-old vistas a certain energy. I liked the contrast between the home video camcorder footage and the epic filmic look of the movie. Same with the contrast between the macro detail photography and the wide angle vast landscapes. The entire film was shot in digital, but it looks as good as film. I’ve experienced and photographed a lot of this landscape over my 20 years of living in Arizona and traveling throughout the southwest. And the photography in 127 Hours is about as good as it gets. No wonder I have so many still images from the trailers below!
Apparently the filmmakers created the canyon where Ralston is stuck for all these hours on a soundstage, since obviously it would have been hard to film on location. From my eye, I couldn’t tell the difference between the set and the real landscapes. Production Designer Suttirat Anne Larlab and her entire art department team did a spectacular job making us feel like we were in a slot canyon in Utah. The scenes where the camera pulls out from what I assume is the set to the real landscape are seamless. I was even looking for evidence of the canyon not being real since I knew it wasn’t, but couldn’t find it! Everything designed in this film served the story perfectly and gave it a very real feel.
Music composer A.R. Rahman did a good job with the score and music selections for 127 Hours. I’m not quite as enamored with his work here as some, but I do think the music did a good job of helping tell the story and it’s got a unique sound to it. There are actually quite a few very silent moments in the film with little or no music, and I think that actually worked well in the context of this story because it felt more real and helped emphasize the detailed sound effects of what Ralston is going through. As excruciating as they were to listen to at times. But again, it all served the story, and I have a feeling that on subsequent viewings when I know where the story is going and can prepare myself more emotionally, I may pay more attention to the integration of music in this movie. I’ve also got the soundtrack now and can listen to it on its own.
The film editing on 127 Hours, led by Jon Harris, is fantastic. This is a story where it could really get boring or fall apart quickly. Luckily, Harris always pulled me back into the story when I felt it was getting long-in-the-tooth, which is surprising for a 94-minute flick. But 127 Hours at times felt like the length of the movie, and not just the title. But Harris’ energetic editing kept me looking at the situation in new interesting ways. I’m not all that impressed with the triptych presentation of three various shots playing side by side. I liked it at first towards the beginning of the film, but by the end, it felt overused and gimmicky. Still, I’ll give Harris and Boyle credit for thinking outside the box with the editing and visual presentation of the film. They knew they needed to keep things interesting and they did their best to do that.
What Danny Boyle has done with 127 Hours is craft a very good story about how precious life is and how much we take it for granted each and every day. Ralston had no idea that when he went out for a day of biking and canyoneering in Southern Utah that he wouldn’t be coming home with both arms intact. With his very being and psyche changed forever. What Ralston got from this painful life-changing experience is what we all crave to get at some point in our lives: meaning and purpose. Why are we here? What is our life for? What is important to us? Like so many of us, Ralston had to learn the hard way through trial and tribulation. Is there really any other way that we learn these lessons? We may not all lose a part of our physical body, but don’t we all go through some sort of similar emotional experience at some point and see what’s really real? Don’t we discover at some point that this rat race modern lifestyle where we all run ragged keeping up with emails, texts, phone calls, and the buzz of the city, is not what’s important? That there’s something else out there for us to discover? Director Danny Boyle explores some very spiritual, emotional, philosophical, and psychological ideas in 127 Hours and he does it in a context where we, like Ralston, are trapped and forced to deal with those things. I can see why this film hasn’t done as well at the box office as it should have. I was not exactly anxious to go see it either! It’s a tough film to market and to get people to see. But if you make it through watching this movie, I promise there’s something good on the other side. I don’t know what it will be for you or when you’ll get it. For me, it’s hope. It’s a reminder that I’ve been in situations, not that dissimilar from Ralston, off on my own hiking in the wilderness, with no real appreciation of the potential danger that comes with that. 127 Hours probably hit me so emotionally hard because I could relate to the story so strongly. And yet amongst and within all the risks of life are great rewards. Ralston risked his life, but got some incredible rewards in the end out of the tragic circumstances he precariously put himself in. I definitely now want to read his biography about the experience: Between A Rock and A Hard Place. So I can get a fuller picture of his personal experience.
If you can still find 127 Hours in the theater near you, go see it. Otherwise wait for the Blu-ray in a few weeks. Either way, this is a movie to be seen at least once just to get the experience, positive or negative. For me it was both.
Check out details on this film and its excellent Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.