In the tradition of Triumph of the Will, the early Oscar contender 127 Hours splits cinematic space into discrete zones—one for a resolute hero looming in close-up, the other for faraway, cheering masses—mediated only by a sublime void. The void in this case is the unpopulated immensity of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The masses are you, me and everyone else in the movie theater (assuming we follow the on-screen promptings—such as images of crowds at sports events—and burst on cue into applause). As for the real-life hero (admittedly a much nicer guy than Hitler), he is Aron Ralston, who in 2003 went hiking alone in Canyonlands, accidentally got pinned deep inside a tunnel of wind-eroded rock and at last freed himself, on the sixth day, by cutting off his right forearm just below the elbow.
Ralston has given his account of this ordeal in the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. For purposes of emotional uplift, his story has now been rewritten by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (the team responsible for Slumdog Millionaire) and directed with Riefenstahlian brio by Boyle, with the actor of the moment, James Franco, taking the role of Ralston.
This is a film of challenges: for Franco, who had to put himself through agony, fear, delirium, fatigue and berserker abandon, while remaining immobilized and at all times likable; for Boyle, who needed to open up a story that was locked in a narrow, all-but-sunless rift in the earth; and for viewers, who know that the price of a ticket buys a front-row seat to an amputation. That’s the whole point of watching 127 Hours. Just as Ralston survived his blood-and-iron experience to emerge a better man, so are you invited to endure this moralized Petit Guignol and come out tingling with admiration for the human spirit—or, to be more accurate, the spirit of one very determined man.
The fictionalized Ralston delivers the moral directly, through lines he speaks to himself and the audience. He should not have gone hiking solo without notifying anyone. He should not have prided himself on being the self-reliant strongman. But narrative arcs speak louder than words, and this arc tells you to stand up and cheer, because Ralston is the superman of self-reliance. As for those friends and family members in whom he should have confided: who are they, anyhow? Flashbacks and fantasies show you a father and mother with no distinguishing characteristics, a past girlfriend of impeccably pretty blondness, a younger sister from the younger-sister factory. Did Ralston know these figures, or did he just glimpse them while leafing through a magazine? Impossible to say. The sole relationship the movie successfully establishes for him is the one with himself, or rather with the video camera on which he records his trials. A fit protagonist for a Danny Boyle film: someone who knows everything about capturing images and nothing about people.
Something is missing in the sublime void of 127 Hours. To identify it, you need only watch another current movie about the foolhardy adventures that some men undertake, and the physical sufferings they overcome: Jackass 3D. No one has yet called this picture an Oscar contender; but it is most likely the ultimate achievement of the lucrative documentary series, dedicated to proving that obscene and violent practical jokes are funniest when they’re self-inflicted.