Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire starts with a flurry of activity, split screens and pounding music. As the credits play, Aron Ralston – climber, thrillseeker – jumps out of bed, gets in his car, jumps out of the car, rides his bike, runs around, meets some girls, frolics with them in a cave and runs off again. It’s an invigorating beginning, reminiscent of Boyle’s best-known work, Trainspotting.
Only after a full twenty minutes, when Ralston falls down a crevice and is trapped under a rock, does the camera settle for the first time and the title – 127 HOURS – finally make its bold appearance on screen. It’s a striking moment, as if Boyle is saying: This now is my film. Here, stuck in the crevice, is my new achievement.
Indeed what’s interesting about this work is the obstacles it has to overcome. After all, the story of one man trapped alone for five days doesn’t immediately present itself as rich with cinematic potential. And anyone who has heard anything about the film or its subject will be well aware of how it ends – not only that the hero prevails, but exactly how and when he does so. Narrative tension as we usually know it is absent, so Boyle – like his protagonist – is forced to draw on his deepest resources to make things work.
In the end he does an impressive job, using flashbacks, hallucinations and a handy video camera to help keep things interesting. Visual flourishes like the huge pan-out from the point of Ralston’s scream for help, demonstrating exactly how far he is from anyone, are pulled off with aplomb. As tricks, they’re always entertaining but also result in the audience being somewhat let off the hook, allowed to escape the confines of the rock so gruellingly endured by the central character.
Possibly this is why I never quite went with James Franco as Ralston and why, when the pivotal ‘cutting’ scene arrived, I remained unconvinced of its epiphanic status or of the transformative/redemptive journey the film seemed to think he’d been on. This despite the moment in question being superbly filmed, with Franco delivering some sterling grimacing and sound deployed to full discomforting effect. Boyle is certainly displaying his skills here – but you feel like he’ll use them to make better films in future.