Based on Aron Ralston’s book Between A Rock And A Hard Place, 127 Hours chronicles the five days Ralston spent with his arm pinned underneath a boulder during a solo rock-climbing expedition gone wrong. It’s a survivalist tale, naturally, but also a more far-reaching assessment of life and death, as the situation forces Ralston to ruminate about his family, his ex-girlfriend, and the hereafter, often in a hallucinatory rush of panic and half-sleep. Hot off Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle would seem like the perfect man for the material, because if there’s a common denominator to his work since Trainspotting, it’s his ability to bottle the caffeinated energy of youth. The setting may seem constricting, but Boyle captures the intensity of Ralston’s experience in a swift, agonizing, defiantly cinematic 90 minutes. But intensity is one thing; depth is another.
Boyle succeeds best at the bookends, before and after Ralston winds up in this predicament. James Franco plays Ralston as a confident, carefree thrill-seeker who ventures out to Bluejohn Canyon, Utah for a rock-climbing weekend alone. Not telling anyone where he’s going is part of the point; real freedom means getting a clean break from civilization and the burdens of family, friends, and other responsibilities. So when he gets stuck under a rock in a deep crevasse, Ralston can’t expect anyone to come to his rescue. All he has for survival are a bottle of water, a little food, and a dull penknife for when things get really desperate.
The money scene in 127 Hours has the intended visceral impact, and it’s a credit to Boyle that he doesn’t flinch from the terrible reality of what Ralston had to do to extricate himself. Yet Boyle’s restless style works against him much of the time, too. The constant barrage of flashbacks takes away from the grim march of time; Ralston was stuck in one place for five days, but the film makes that period feel much shorter. Worse still, all that introspection adds up to a disappointingly shallow accumulation of regrets and life lessons, none of them surprising. After the adrenaline rush, 127 Hours turns to vapor.