Do you recall the story of Aron Ralston, the man with the tragically misspelled name who also, somewhat tragically, got trapped between two rocks in Utah in 2003? If you do not recall the story, and if you can avoid having its details revealed to you beforehand, you are in for quite a time when you see “127 Hours.” You will probably think the film has taken outrageous liberties with the truth. But nope, this is really what happened.
Remarkably, the dramatization — directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), starring James Franco as Ralston — is completely enthralling even if you already know what happens in the end. Maybe more so, in fact, because now there is the anticipation and dread of what’s to come.
Well, now it sounds like a horror story, which I guess it kind of is. Aron is an enthusiastic and healthy Colorado man who spends all his free time skiing, rappelling, hiking, biking, and otherwise communing with the more adrenaline-oriented parts of nature. One April weekend he goes to southeastern Utah, where he has been many times before, to bike and climb and camp. He meets a couple of strangers (played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) in his journeys. Then, when he is alone, he falls into a crevice. His right arm is pinned between a boulder and the wall of the rock. He cannot get out.
How do you make a movie about someone trapped alone in the desert for 127 hours? As amazing as the story is when you hear it on CNN, it doesn’t seem to lend itself to cinematic retelling. But Boyle (working from a screenplay he co-wrote with “Slumdog Millionaire” writer Simon Beaufoy) makes the most of it, ingeniously. The early scenes emphasize Aron’s athletic exuberance, as he runs, leaps, almost prances through the great outdoors. The music and editing — not to mention James Franco’s impossibly joyful demeanor, which seems to come naturally — convey freedom and a celebration of life.
And then: abrupt silence. Terrifying aloneness. Boyle doesn’t waste a lot of time on preliminaries, and once Aron is trapped, Boyle and Franco explore every facet of his psyche, from fear and panic to delirium and depression. We see Aron’s dreams, memories, and premonitions. We share his hunger and thirst. (An experienced outdoorsman, Aron is smart enough to stave off immediate death by taking stock of his supplies, one-handed, and rationing what he has.) We feel his emotions and regrets. Franco’s performance is everything you could hope for in what is essentially a one-man show.
Boyle maintains an impressive degree of energy even though much of the story involves a character who is alone and immobile, and he does it without resorting to cheap gimmicks. In opposition to its protagonist’s endless hours of boredom, the movie has a breezy pace, and is strangely happy and optimistic, despite the bad things that happen.
Then there is the moment of truth. If you know the story, you know what it is. If you don’t know the story, good luck and godspeed. Boyle’s greatest feat here might be in taking something that certain genre movies have made commonplace and restoring its impact. Nothing is sensationalized. We’re invested in Aron’s survival, plain and simple. This is an exhilarating and triumphant story, told in gripping fashion. It is a testament to the human spirit, and a reminder of why you should never, ever go outdoors.
A- (1 hr., 34 min.; )