Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Film Review: 127 Hours

The news spread through the outdoor adventure community like a wildfire.

A climber and canyoneer named Aron Ralston was involved in an accident in Bluejohn Canyon near Moab.  But this was no normal accident.  While descending a steep section, Ralston dislodged a boulder which caught his arm and pinned him.  After being stuck in the canyon without food or water for days, the young man was forced to do the unthinkable.

He amputated his arm with a pocketknife.

Why did this happen?  Ralston was notorious for gleefully flirting with danger.  Indeed, he was buried up to his neck in an avalanche just a few months before the Bluejohn Canyon incident.  It appeared that he had a record of being careless in the mountains.  He was heavily criticized for soloing when he performed his "self-rescue" in the canyon.  The theory being that if there was somebody there, they could have went for help.  And he was also roundly criticized for not telling anyone where he was going.

After the incident, many people -- both outdoors people and media talking heads -- attacked Ralston for soloing the canyon.  People said that it was irresponsible or somehow wrong to go into the backcountry without a partner.  I would respectfully disagree.  Solo adventures by experienced backcountry enthusiasts are incredibly common in every type of wilderness travel, from climbing, to backpacking, to skiing, to canyoneering...

There is some legitimacy, however,  to the second criticism.  A responsible backcountry user should do everything in his or her power to make sure that somebody knows where he or she is.  And while itineraries sometimes change, they often only change a little bit.  One is generally still in the same geographic area, so if you don't come home after a trip, at least SAR has a search grid to work with.

After things cooled off a bit, Ralston wrote a book about his experience entitled, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.  This book was recently adapted into a feature film entitled 127 Hours directed by Academy Award winner Danny Boyle and staring James Franco.

For the most part, the film is a tight, artistic and engrossing account of Ralston's ordeal.  The entire piece feels a lot like the film version ofTouching the Void.  In each of the movies, the poor choices that the characters make disappear into harrowing survival stories and we completely forget about them.  It's hard to be too judgmental when a person is in so much pain and enduring so much terror.

Indeed, the beating heart of 127 Hours is an issue that many outdoor adventurers and enthusiasts have a hard time coming to terms with.  Outdoor adventure sports can be positive experiences that bring people together.  They can cement deep relationships and provide life-altering personal insights.  But we all know that these same sports provide thrills that can be powerful intoxicants and can lead one down a dark path away from the positive aspects of outdoor adventure and into selfishness and obsession.  This is where Ralston (James Franco) was at the beginning of the film, imprisoned by arrogance and self-absorption.  His trapped arm then becomes a metaphor for the trap that he has built around himself out of the negativity in his psyche.  His eventual escape from Bluejohn is then also a metaphor for his escape from his previous life and the shallowness that accompanied it.

Films are generally constructed in three acts.  There's an introduction where the characters and the story are defined.  The first act is usually capped off by an important event which significantly raises the stakes for the character.  The second act is the meat of the story and it is also finished with a climactic event.  The third act usually includes the film's climax and closes out the story.  

Though this is a very good film, it is not without flaw.  The weakest part of127 Hours is in the first act.  The problem is twofold.  First, the dialogue and the interaction between the characters is stilted and somewhat unrealistic.  Screenwriters Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, as well as the cast, would have done well to spend some time in the mountains or in the canyons with real outdoors people.  The interaction between Aron Ralston and two attractive young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) that he meets in the desert is weak and Hollywoodish.  They simply don't talk to each other the way that people talk to each other when they meet in the wilderness.  Instead, the characters have an interaction which is sexually charged and completely bereft of realism.

Most outdoorspeople really like to see women working together in the mountains.  When we see two female partners at the crag, they are usually dialed.  There's something offensive about this sequence where a know-it-all guy drops in to help two damsels in distress and it turns into a flirt fest.  The stereotype of the no-nothing woman in the outdoors is dated and sexist.  All of the parties involved in this production should have known better than to rely on a weak cliché, especially when it comes to portraying individuals who are balanced and intelligent backcountry users.

Trailer for 127 Hours

The second problem in the first act revolves around the same interaction.  Ralston and his female companions decide that they are going to drop into a hidden pool deep within a canyon.  Of course the pool is crystal clear and absolutely beautiful.  The reality of such a pool, deep in a recess, is that it would be a scummy and disgusting pond.  Perhaps this was simply added to provide some sex appeal to the weakly written interaction between Ralston and the women.

Early screenings of the movie at international film festivals brought in rave reviews.  Indeed, this film was put on the list as an Oscar contender long before it made its way to American theaters.  But those film festivals also brought in something else.  There were reports of people who were so disgusted by the amputation scene that they were vomiting and fainting in the aisles. Perhaps I'm jaded and have seen too much violence in film, but I personally found this sequence to be exhilarating.  I found myself rooting for the character and worrying that he would pass out and be unable to finish the task at hand.

127 Hours is a fantastic survival movie.  James Franco is a master actor and Danny Boyle is one of the best directors currently working in American film.  This small story about one man literally caught between a rock and a hard place, is an inspiring piece about obsession and life.  Every person on the planet has a deep need to stay alive no matter what.  The fact that Ralston severs his own arm isn't that surprising.  Most people (at least those who read this blog) would do the same under such circumstances.  But what is surprising and refreshing about the piece instead, is the depth of the character's thoughts and the transformation that he goes through as the story unfolds.

--Jason D. Martin

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