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Boyle bids a farewell to arm with ‘127 Hours’

By Eric Jessen

Section: Arts

February 4, 2011

The situation in which Aron Ralston found himself in May 2003 couldn’t easily repeat itself today. While on a hiking trip in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, without any means of communication and having left without telling anyone where he was going, Ralston became trapped when a boulder fell on his arm. It’s hard to imagine anyone today leaving somewhere without their cell phone, as Ralston did, or perhaps without posting where they’re going on their profile page.

Yet Danny Boyle’s film version of Ralston’s story, “127 Hours,” recently nominated for Best Picture, couldn’t be more modern. Boyle ramps up the film with the same style and technique that made his films “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Trainspotting” so popular, though one can’t help but wonder how a more naturalistic filmmaker would have told Ralston’s story.

“127 Hours” plays like a Facebook page of endless updates about what Ralston is thinking. In an era where the minutia of every thought is published on the Internet for everyone to see, it shouldn’t have surprised me that a movie about a man being stuck in one place for five days could be made appealing to audiences and critics; maybe they’ll next make a movie about someone stuck at their computer. With Facebook and Twitter not yet on the world’s radar at the time of the accident, Ralston’s medium for narrating his life is instead a small camera which he brought with him. As Ralston runs out of food and water and the situation becomes grim, he uses the camera to explore his self image: what he thought of himself and how he wants to be remembered.

Who hasn’t met a Ralston once in their life? He eats protein bars, drinks Gatorade, and gets high on testosterone and exhilaration. But this is the story of young exuberance literally being brought down to Earth. The strength of Boyle’s film is in showing how Ralston, played exceptionally well by James Franco (the favorite for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards), must come to terms with profound loneliness and perhaps learn the idiocy and selfishness of his careless attitude. However, Boyle’s film is less a critique of two-armed Ralston’s shallow life style—putting the thrill of his para-skiing-bungee-mountain-biking adventures above family and friends—and more of an uplifting story of Ralston’s redemption in learning the importance of connecting with people. One can almost imagine the sequel: Ralston married with kids at his high school reunion.

The showiness and overly beautified style employed in Boyle’s last film “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was cut and structured for the reality TV viewer with a short attention span, bleeds through to “127 Hours.” But this element, which made “Slumdog” a two-hour music video and transformed poverty into a mere road block for teen love, doesn’t overshadow the inherent message of Aron Ralston’s unbelievable story.

Instead, the issue with “127 Hours” is Boyle’s need to force the redemptive value of Ralston’s experience in place of brutal honesty. The flashbacks of Ralston’s shining moments in life feel too much like Kodak moments. The music by A. R. Rahman, who worked with Boyle on “Slumdog,” often feels too cute, as do the clips of old commercials for Gatorade and Coca-Cola. It’s unclear if Boyle intended to make a point about the effect of television on the psyche of Ralston and his generation, one that would have brought the modern take full circle. The clips of commercials seem only to suggest that Ralston may have gotten the idea for climbing things, and then jumping off of them, from an ad for Juicy Fruit.

The inevitable scene in which Ralston severs his own arm in order to escape—a scene which looms over the entire film—is the only time Boyle truly challenges the audience and forces it to endure the horror of Ralston’s experience without letting his grinning technique get in the way. However, having heard stories of people running for the exits during this scene, I’m not sure if a more brutally honest film of Ralston’s story is actually a realistic hope. The realities of Ralston’s experience, combined with the hardships of the world, may be too unbearable for audiences to stand. The sensationalism of violence and perversion in film can never be as unwatchable as the truth.

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