“127 Hours”: The Instinct to Survive and the Will to Live

My husband and I just saw the movie that brings to the screen the harrowing tale of 23 year old mountain climber Aron Ralston, who literally cuts himself loose from a boulder in a slot canyon in Blue John, a remote area of the Moab desert in Utah, the state with the most slot canyons in the world. (A slot canyon is a narrow and extremely steep canyon, formed by rushing water carving through rock.) To stay alive, Ralston resorts to his keenest survival instincts honed from rescue training in outdoor’s extreme conditions.

Based on Ralston’s autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, “127 Hours” was written and directed by Danny Boyle, whose tour-de-force last year, “Slum Dog Millionaire”, won Best Movie of 2010. Again, Boyle has hit this one out of the ballpark. You might wonder how a film about one character (Aron Ralston) trapped in a treacherous slot canyon can hold the viewer’s interest for the five days Aron endures the imminent death he is almost certainly facing. But this movie in no way bogs down for a second. With astonishing photography that splits the screen into a triptych of extraordinary canyon scenery as well as close-up facial expressions, Boyle’s decision to film crucial points of the story in split-screen, enhances the tension in Aron’s situation.  The cinematography is brilliant, superbly effective, a masterpiece like no other movie I have seen to date.  The masterful rendering of scene is painterly and stunning.

The story is necessarily about how time is passing very slowly on the one hand, as Aron is determined not to die, with the realization that after five days, his almost incredulous will to live will triumph.  The passage of time is both painfully slow and inexorably rapid, like the sand in an hourglass, depending upon whose time is up.

About 80 percent of the film is of Aron trapped in a slot canyon so narrow that he has to concoct a sling in order to sleep in a vertical position. This challenges the cinematographer to do the best with a very limited set design, but it’s nonetheless riveting.  Camera angles are ingenious.  One example, to film Aron drinking his last drop of water, the camera zooms in on the bottom of his thermos to shoot his dehydrated mouth.  To do that, the scene requires that the bottom of the thermos is cut out so that filming can bring the viewer into Aron’s face.

By now anyone who follows movie reviews knows what is going to happen, before stepping into the  theater.  Let’s just say that this movie is not for the faint-hearted. Yet, that “arm” scene is still unbelievably intense. I am known to be squeamish and was very happy that I did not have a full stomach. The music pulsates to the beat of the “arm”. James Franco, the actor who plays Aron Ralston, has to hold the viewer’s attention by sheer force of his thespian skill, just as Aron had to survive by the sheer force of his will to live. Ralston’s survivor instincts and almost animal determination to live in the face of death are extraordinary, like that of a trapped animal.

But this film is more than a build-up of pressure and suspense, which do indeed drive the film. Through both the director and actor’s restraint, the film is about the arrogance of a young mountain climber who has not been a sensitive human being to others in his life. Canyoneering, a sport in which rock-climbing skills, ropes and gear are used to slide into narrow slot canyons, epitomizes Aron’s overconfidence and sense of immortality.  Now, he’s isolated and considers how this entrapment may be retribution for a selfish and unreflective life. James Franco, in an almost impeccable performance, elicits sympathy from the audience and also relief that he has not only survived but has triumphed from his ordeal.

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