Animals caught in a trap will gnaw off their own foot in order to escape. But it takes a special breed of human--or a delirious one--to cut off his own arm in order to free himself from a boulder that threatened to serve as his headstone.
I don't know of anyone who walked in the theater to see "127 Hours" who had no idea what the film was about. Most people heard how hiker Aron Ralston cut off his arm in order to free himself, then somehow rappelled down a 65-foot rock face and hiked for miles before he found help. It was big news in 2003, and the story got more traction when Ralston's memoir was published in 2005. But the biggest buzz came after the film opened and newspapers reported that people actually passed out during the gruesome parts.
So the film's crucial dramatic event is no secret. Yet there's something oddly compelling about watching the drama play out. Star James Franco has remarked that it had to be tougher playing Ralston than it was for Tom Hanks in "Cast Away" (2000). At least Hanks had a volleyball to talk to, and freedom of movement. That provided different backgrounds and scene changes for director Robert Zemeckis to work with. But for most of the film Boyle had only a lone 28-year-old hiker with his arm pinned in a narrow slot canyon in Blue John Canyon, in the Robbers Roost area. As a result, Boyle and his cinematographers decided to shoot their immobile subject from every conceivable angle in attempt to generate some variety. And to add narrative variety--the equivalent of Ralston taking everything out of his backpack and spreading it out in front of him--the character goes through an emotional inventory of flashbacks and speculative hallucinations that range from boyhood memories to a party he was invited to attend the night he got stuck--a party that used a gigantic Scooby-Doo as an identifying beacon for revelers.
Franco is a force of life in "127 Hours," portraying Ralston as a carefree spirit who runs everywhere with the exuberance of a pre-teen and enjoys life to the max. He shows two female hikers a spot where they can slip between two rock faces and plummet into a hidden pool of water, and like kids, they do it over and over again. But this former mechanical engineer is intelligent, too. After he and the women part ways and he becomes trapped in an isolated area where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once holed up, he recognizes almost instantly that his predicament will be the death of him, literally. It's why he turns the video camera he's used to film the sights on himself, recording things for his parents, whom he hopes will be given the tape after someone eventually finds his body.
Boyle and his team rely on some interesting shots to stoke our interest, though sometimes they can trend toward the gimmicky, as when we see a bottom-of-the-water-bottle view of Ralston's face as he drinks. But hey, I understand. You've only got so much to work with, and so you pull out all the stops . . . F and otherwise. And the sound? The FX team worked overtime on this project, coming up with bone-breaking ways to make audiences squeamish. It's the sound that works on you more than the visuals, because you never really see the exact operation. But you see enough of it to make you feel as if you've seen too much.
In the end, "127 Hours" is another human odyssey, one that shows what people are capable of under stress and in extreme situations. They'll drink their own urine, if that's what's required to stay hydrated. And they'll use a cheap Swiss Army Knife knock-off to beat the trap. Boyle and his star understand this, but to their credit "127 Hours" isn't structured so that it's a testimony to human determination. It's an adventure--though not the one Ralston himself thought he'd find that day in 2003.
"127 Hours" was shut out at the Oscars, but it earned six nominations: Editing, Score, Original Song, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Picture. In a leaner year, it might have won.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc is a good one, producing no compression artifacts and devoid of any attempts to scrub the grain that serves as a gritty visual parallel to the action and a bridge between Ralston's home video shots and the main filming action. Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, "127 Hours" looks great in 1080p. Ford had his Monument Valley, and now Boyle has his Canyonlands area, with its bright orange-red sandstone made even bolder against a clear blue sky. The colors of the natural world look fabulous, and there's a nice amount of detail in close-ups especially. Boyle used digital cameras to film, and the images are rich and precise. Shots that start with Ralston deep inside a slot canyon and pull back gradually until we see an aerial view to emphasize his utter isolation are especially powerful. And that water inside the hidden pool? It couldn't look bluer or purer.
The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio that rips with sound like fingernails on a chalkboard when Boyle is trying to get your attention. But silence is used effectively as well, and that silence is pure and free of white noise of any sort. I won't talk about the sounds during the actual "money shot" for this film, because I don't want to give too much away, but it's then when you realize that this has been a pretty dynamic soundtrack. Additional audio options are Spanish, French, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, French, and Portuguese.
The burning desire everyone has after watching a film like this is to hear from the real person, and Ralston does make a brief appearance in a 15-minute feature about his "Search & Rescue." In it, we also hear from the rescue team and people close to Ralston. Boyle is joined by producer Christian Colson and his co-writer, Simon Beaufoy, who talk a lot about their strategies for taking a real story and dramatizing it effectively. What they have to say about the scenes outside the claustrophobic slot canyon are especially interesting. About a half-hour's worth of deleted scenes are also included, but the main feature is a brief (35 min.) but well-done making-of feature that lifts the curtain so you can see what was shot on a soundstage and what was shot on location in Utah. We also get a rare look at an actor challenging his director--though I'm sure it must happen a lot.
I'm not sure why a 4-minute interview between Franco and Peter Sellars at Telluride has to be a BD-Live feature instead of included directly here, but that's the way it is. Equally mystifying but far more satisfying, Fox Searchlight has made one short filmmaker very, very happy by including "The God of Love" (18 min.), by Luke Matheny, even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with Ralston, Utah, or even the kind of music Ralston listens to as he's running up the mountains.
What a year this was for Best Picture nominees! Decades from now it will be interesting to hear what a new generation has to say about the best films of 2010, and how "127 Hours" stacks up. It's a tour de force for Franco, certainly, but also for Boyle, who takes something you'd think impossible to film and somehow makes a compelling story out of it.