127 Hours: movie review

James Franco plays Aron Ralston in ‘127 hours,’ a visceral retelling of a man facing calamity.

Fox Searchlight
James Franco portrays real-life Aron Ralston in ‘127 Hours.’ Ralston wrote a memoir about his extreme measures to survive a rock slide.
Fox Searchlight
James Franco as Aron Ralston gauging his options.

What would you do if you were a hiker and a rock slide pinned your arm against a narrow canyon wall and help was nowhere to be found? If you're Aron Ralston, who subsequently wrote a book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," about his real-life 2003 ordeal in Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, you exhaust all nonsurgical remedies over the course of 127 hours and then you do the dirty deed. You sever your right forearm.

This sequence, which provides the grisly, inevitable climax to Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," has reportedly set off a wave of fainting spells at preview screenings. It's only a movie, folks, though you may want to look away anyway. I didn't, thereby ruining my dinner plans.

James Franco plays Ralston, and, except for a lovely pre-rock slide interlude where he cavorts with two fetching lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), he's basically the whole show. Franco is a remarkably engaging actor – a prerequisite here – but Boyle, understandably, tricks up his predicament with a slew of Ralston's imaginings and fantasies and swaddles everything in a throbbing synthopop score.

The problem is, most of Ralston's deliriums seem more like Boyle's (even the ones that come straight from the book). I've never been a fan of Boyle's hyperkinetic pyrotechnics. From "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting" right through to "Slumdog Millionaire," he can't resist juicing everything he touches. He takes slickness into the stratosphere.

Boyle's hard-sell split-screen stylistics – he intercuts everything from stadium crowd scenes to a biblical-size flash flood – are especially flagrant here because they contrast so sharply with Ralston's stark situation. (By the way, given the limited dramatic choices, it's amazing how many product tie-ins Boyle manages to work in.)

There is also something vaguely unseemly about the way Boyle and his coscreenwriter Simon Beaufoy tease out our expectation of the inevitable. Since Ralston's ultimate decision, even for audience members who aren't already prepared for it, is essentially a given, we're placed in the uncomfortable position of being set up for the big payoff. This wouldn't be so bad if the events leading up to the amputation had a lot less glitz and a little more gravitas, but too often they come across as glorified diversionary tactics.

As a testament to positive thinking, "127 Hours" will probably stand as a ringing affirmation for reckless survivalists. For those of us not so affirmed, Boyle's paean to heroism – a better title for it might have been "A Farewell to Arm" – is merely the best gross-out music video ever made. Grade: B- (Rated R for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images.)

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