Yes, we’re talking of witnessing inspiring, gruesome, and awesome 127 hours. Actually Danny Boyle made it happen in just 94 minutes. This is a movie based on the true adventures of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber… an adventure that is about saving himself from a desolate death in an isolated canyon in Utah.
The story on the screen is directed by Danny Boyle and Ralston is characterized by James Franco. This production from 2010 includes Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy, Kate Burton, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan, and Treat Williams.
Is there a story in this movie? No, not really… unless you call a climber with his right hand trapped by a huge boulder inside a giant crevice somewhere in the canyons of Utah and struggling to extricate himself, has delirious flash backs from his life, shouts, makes his own video, fights to keep himself in control, and ultimately decides to sever his arm as a powerful story. And yet there is something in this movie that has the power to keep you glued to your seat for the entire duration!
What is it that makes 127 Hours a movie worth watching?
If there is a single sentence that sums up what this movie goes on to achieve, then my son Pushkin’s update on FB says it all: “Saw 127 Hours 2 weeks back… still can’t stop thinking about it.” And these few words are as good as any movie actually going ahead and winning all the Oscars for the year!
However, the truth is that all left- as well as right- brained humans need questions with reasonable answers for making them agree or disagree with anything. And, therefore, I have a set of questions that make you think of most relevant objective as well as subjective planes before you decide to say: ‘Yes, this movie was indeed inspiring, gruesome, and awesome!’
Strategic question One.
Is survival a result of strategy, coincidence, or is it just an after-thought?
Does the film give us an answer to the mystery behind survival decisions? Waiting for 127 hours before Ralston decides to break his arm couldn’t really have been a part of any strategic thought and it was neither a coincidence nor an after-thought. The decision was more like the final intuitive move of a chess player just before the end game starts getting clearer to him. Before that moment of revelation, the game could’ve been poised to tilt anyway.
Could Ralston also have known that he would stumble upon a ditch of muddy water to give him that final surge of energy? Could he have known that he would stumble upon a couple of tourists who would help him reach the finish line? The answer to the first could be the highly developed tutored intuitive sensibilities of a mountaineer and the answer to the second more poignant question is that what happened was as a result of the power of his will to survive compelling all the forces of the universe to come together to help him live without interfering with his battle for survival! The battle, after all, was over… and he just needed a Nightingale to deal with the physicality of his scars!
The arm-severing isn’t the central point of the movie. It is the build-up from a base of strategic thought to the enigma of intuition that is brilliantly captured in this movie.
Strategic question two.
Does a message turn any movie into a classic?
An excellent film-maker, Boyle certainly isn’t at his best when asked questions that force him to philosophize and I disagree with him when he indicates in an interview that “the meaning of this story, its take-home message, is that it made Ralston a better person; he learned that he couldn’t do everything himself, and that he should swallow his pride and ask for help a little more.” This really is mundane.
The message is effectively borne by what Ralston himself says in the movie: “You know, I’ve been thinking. Everything is… just comes together. It’s me. I chose this. I chose all this. This rock… this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. It’s entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago. In space. It’s been waiting, to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath that I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the out surface.” This movie clearly and unambiguously promotes the validity of acceptance, of humility, and of being an essential and primal part of every decision that happens in the universe.
The story of 127 hours of Ralston can, in fact, be loosely compared to the 14 year exile of Lord Ram in our own epic, The Ramayana! Remember, he was, in the first place, descending the steep not just to startle himself but also to reach some yet undiscovered facet of existence (Just what Ram did!). The boulder wasn’t deliberately provoked to come whistling down to trap his right arm… but yet it did and the problem was enough to make him reach out to all his subliminal demons and vanquish them one by one. Ralston did conquer all the demons in his head making him emerge a better person (as Boyle indicates)…
Yet this movie isn’t a classic because of any message anywhere. In fact, no movie turns into a classic because of a message. It is the way a movie or a story unfolds and the way it opens up multiple avenues of interpretation and perceived learning that makes it stay embedded on our psyches for long. And this is where 127 Hours is successful!!
Strategic question three.
Is background music invaluable to a movie’s success?
You have ‘Falling From Height, Trapped, Dread, Thirst, Blood, Loneliness, Monologue, Anger, Hallucination, Determination, Memory, Testimony, Fantasy Sequence, Despair, Video Taping One’s Self, Drinking Own Urine, Cockiness, Self Deprecation, Defying Death, Self Amputation, Hoist, Escape, and Survival’ to be set to music and A R Rahman does it with panache!
If Franco is able to tie you to your cinema seat or sofa seat, the musical scores of Rahman mesmerize and prevent you from even attempting to get up or even shout for help. I believe that whenever a scene remains in one’s memory, it is the background music that actually glues or embeds it there. So though one may not really remember or recollect the strains of music, one does tend to sway or move with the remembered scene exactly the way the music intended him to! That’s magic. That’s what Rahman has managed to do this time too.
No wonder people who’ve seen the movie have written comments that voice an emotion as strong and similar to what this netizen wrote: “…everything in this film is so real. I would close my eyes and open them for a split second to see his self mangled arm just drenched in blood and then immediately close my eyes again. But I think what really got to me was the MUSIC. Something about it just burned straight into my skull…” This is precisely why I believe that musical scores are invaluable to a movie’s ultimate success.
Strategic question four.
Is a compelling visual statement possible sans Bollywood style item numbers, steamy scenes, and mushy romance?
This movie has a ‘Mountain Climber, Utah, Boulder, Hiker, Canyon, Arm Breaking, Rain, Adventurer, Bicycle, Flashlight, Rock, Girl, Meteorite, Desert, Hiking, Swiss Army Knife, Swimming, Canon Camera, Self Surgery, Flashback, Pulley, Water, Canteen, Couch, Urination, Lightning, Rope, Climbing, Hairy Chest, Flash Flood, Answering Machine, Water, Cave Painting, Flooding, Piano, Snowing, Knife, Telephone Call, and Time Lapse Photography’ as the props and people to devise any celluloid magic… and Danny Boyle does it with aplomb!
There are no Katrina Kaifs or Mallika Sherawats gyrating sensually to keep the audiences from straying out of the frame of mind that the director builds. There are no romantic interludes on Nottinghill, no Sean Connery on a treacherous mission, no gladiators in Roman amphitheatres, no Spocks in space… and yet Ralston emerges as romantic as Hugh Grant, as powerful as Russell Crowe, and as entertaining as 007.
He manages to create an indelible impact and a compelling visual statement with just his expressions, actions, skimpy dialogues he has to deliver and all he has are a boulder, his backpack contents, a swiss knife, a camera, a few flashbacks, and a flashlight as his props!
Strategic question five.
Is a riveting and suspenseful film possible even when there is no element of surprise in the climax?
We all know that it is never the destination but the journey that fascinates and stays to play or play havoc in one’s memory. This movie reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ where he tells us through Santiago to ‘keep awake and steer. You may have much luck yet.’ Santiago also tells us in a plain language, all that we keep trying to suppress. Why else does he think aloud — ‘I hope I do not have to fight again ….. I hope so much I do not have to fight again.’ The story of Santiago doesn’t end with a flourishing swish of melodrama, doesn’t end with him putting an end to his poverty… it is the old man, his skiff, the fish he caught, the sharks, and the sea unified in their diversities. So much like the story of Ralston…
And yet we read of reports telling us that people have fainted seeing this movie. Some of these people may have seen ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ without an iota of fear rippling through them and yet a Danny Boyle film makes them faint? The arm severing scene is well towards the end and gets over in a blink. This movie is all about the build up towards a perceived climax. Though there is no climax. The entire movie is one huge tsunami of churned emotions!
This is indeed a riveting and suspenseful film with no surprise ending. Everyone knows what is going to happen ultimately, and yet… people faint! I repeat, there is no climax in the movie. The entire movie is one huge tsunami of churned emotions!
Strategic question six.
Had it been anyone other than Franco in the lead role, would the impact still be the same?
Well, the debate here would be if it is the story, the script, the treatment of a concept, the direction, the music, the locale, or the acting talents of an individual that make a film memorable? The impact of a meteor is always a combination of its mass, velocity, and the landing site… so is it with 127 Hours.
That said, let me add that Franco augmented the mass, increased the velocity, and guided the film to success by a near perfect merger with the soul of what Ralston actually may have gone through. If anybody else could’ve done this, he could have done an equally good job…
In an interview, Franco revealed that he had first seen the videos of Ralston. He said: “On those videos, he thought he was going to die. As an actor, you can observe and see that is how a person behaves when they are facing death. He believed he was going to die. He made those video messages right up until an hour of escaping, so he believed he was going to die. There was one of the keys to capturing his essence.” Obviously, Franco was successfully able to replicate Ralston’s emotional state throughout the movie. Franco also says: “I loved the idea of examining a person by stripping everything away and having everything that he’s used to and takes for granted taken away so that he is just faced with the essentials: What is life made up of? Also, having to stare death in the face and that, I thought, was a powerful piece of material.”
The point is… why only Franco? I have an answer. Out of all the medical schools in the world where students have the option of studying the same text-books why only one Christian Bernard does a heart transplant? Of the thousands who go deeper into numerical analysis, why only one Sheil-Small explores more than all others in the world of complex polynomials? Why did no one but Mark Zuckerberg do what he did to social networking? Every creator could easily have been someone else… and the world does have many more creative and brilliant souls than the ones who are known for what they did. But then, there is always only one who goes up the path and opens the door, so to say. Franco entered the soul of Ralston and made 127 hours memorable. That’s it. Simple.
…let me end by saying that it is me (Arvind Passey) writing this review, and you do have the right to go and ask why no other film critic has reviewed the way I did. Got it?
© Arvind Passey
28 January 2011
Featured image credit: TEX-beXki