Not since Sisyphus has a boulder-versus-man tale gotten so much attention. Danny Boyle's "127 Hours" dramatizes the survivalist story of hiker Aron Ralston, as told in his book "Between a Rock and a Hard Place." In the process, James Franco positions himself for a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
The title refers to the time that lone mountain climber Ralston (Franco) spends trapped in Utah's Blue John Canyon, where a boulder pins his arm to a rock wall. Boyle clearly relishes the filmmaking challenge. Like Ralston, Boyle is an adrenaline junkie, and the film's opening moments establish the searching energy of filmmaker and subject. A vigorous split-screen title sequence (set to Free Blood's "Never Hear Surf Music Again") emphasizes the constant movement of humanity and Ralston's addiction to the stimulation he believes only a nature excursion can provide him. Both notions prove deeply ironic, as does the idea that life bustles on unabated while Ralston's lifeforce ebbs away in a quiet canyon.
The opening sequence teases what audiences know they're "in for," as Ralston fatefully fails to pick up his phone and tell his parents his planned whereabouts, notice an extra bottle of water in his fridge, or find the pocket knife hiding on his top shelf. Ralston also meets a couple of young female hikers (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) shortly before his accident. Even as Ralston faces his fate alone, his parents, the hikers, old friends and girlfriends remain characters in his story. Boyle's conceit is to view Ralston's experience from his subjective point of view, incorporating flashbacks to happier times, reveries and fantasy visions, as well as his unreliable perception as delirium encroaches.
At the instant of the accident, Ralston quickly experiences most of Kubler-Ross' stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. That accomplished, he focuses on his options, laying out his gizmos on the boulder (these include a flashlight, a cheap multiuse tool and his video camera, with which he reviews his meeting with the girls and records video diaries that give the man-in-nature adventure its distinctly 21st-century tone of navel-gazing).
Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (both Oscar winners for Boyle's previous film, "Slumdog Millionaire") don't flinch from gore, and they indulge in plenty of gallows humor. The director winningly uses every audio-visual trick in his bag to turn the story cinematic. "127 Hours" becomes something of a Rorschach test for audiences. Is it a uniquely powerful experience or a "Johnny-come-lately" after the metaphysical survivalist films "Touching the Void" and "Into the Wild"? Is it an amazing tale of endurance or a dubious extension of a reckless fool's 15 minutes of fame? I'll take a little from column A and a little from column B.
Perhaps the least assailable element of the film is Franco's performance. In mental and spiritual conflict with an immovable object -- one standing in for the force of nature and mortality -- Franco's intuitive acting skill never fails him. Even when the camera is directly in his face, or in a bold sequence requiring him essentially to do a stand-up comedy routine, Franco pitches his performance to hit the right notes of desperately searching soulfulness. The humanism of Franco's performance focuses and redeems the overriding "carpe diem" theme, around which Boyle loses ground in a hoary, sentimental assertion at film's end.