Lust for life
Much like Titanic, Danny Boyle’s latest film 127 hours is not a movie which tries to hide what happens at the end. There are surprises, but the pivotal point of the story is out there for all to know. And much like that famous ship movie, even though you know the outcome, nothing prepares you for that moment.
Aron Ralston was a cocky young 20-something who loved hiking, loud music and flirting with girls. Incredibly fit and filled with self-confidence, his life ran according to his schedule. Fuelled by an addiction to adrenalin he would climb high, cycle fast or jump into canyons in search of his next physical buzz.
In 2003 he set off on a weekend getaway to the Blue John Canyon in rural Utah. Did he tell his workmates where he was going? No sir. Did he reply to his mother’s calls about his weekend plans? No way. Did he bother to pack a proper penknife or a mobile phone? Not a chance. IPod, camera and video camera? Well, yes. We see him skidding along craggy tracks and leaping over ravines before one misjudged jump leaves him at the bottom of the canyon with a fallen boulder trapping his right arm. And so begin the 127 hours of anguish and survival which culminate in the moment which so profoundly changed his life – the decision to get out of the canyon alive even if it meant leaving a part of him behind.
Aron has already sold a record number of copies of his book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. He’s appeared on numerous talk shows to recount what happened (Oprah shed a tear). Following on from last year’s vibrant Slumdog Millionaire, this story seemed a curious choice for Danny Boyle – a movie about a man trapped in a small rocky space hardly seems to appeal to Boyle’s kinetic film-making style. Never underestimate a talented director, though.
Mixing flashbacks from his life with the videos Ralston recorded on his camcorder while he was trapped, Boyle paints a picture of a man whose lone wolf persona and self-reliance mean he is as isolated back in the city as he is in the bottom of this canyon. Too intent on doing his own thing, he never relied on his family or friends until he needed them most.
James Franco, who plays Ralston, could well be up for an Oscar based on this compelling and charismatic performance – much like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, it his job to carry the whole movie.
As his body starts to succumb to malnutrition, his dreams are a hazy mix of surreal memories and passing fantasies. As his water supply dries up he imagines thunderstorms above. When his spirits flag, he fantasies about the girls he met earlier on his hike.
These are all interludes in his struggle with the rock. It is an immovable object, refusing to budge no matter how much he pushes, shouts, swears, prods or pleads. It an unyielding absolute which forces him to the point of humility – he is not the superman he thought he was. His food and water run out. He realises that by the time he’s officially declared missing it will be too late. The battery on the video camera dies. These are the facts he faces.
But much like Danny Boyle’s earlier Trainspotting, there is an underlying lust for life, a desire to choose life – the catalyst in this case being a vision Ralston has of his future. By the time the moment comes around for him to do what he has to in order to get out of the canyon, you are as motivated and willing as he is.
It is a testimony to both Boyle and Franco that his emotional journey at the bottom of that canyon is so complete that you support his painful decision fully and you cry along with him as he emerges back into the light and his family’s life.
Ralston has described that moment as a rebirth, ‘One life ended and another began’. He was, like all of us, prone to arrogance and selfishness until he came face to face with his own short comings and frailty. His transformation is testimony to how much we need each other – why community matters. No man is an island.
The closing scenes are ebullient, oozing with the second chance he was given. He emerges from the valley of the shadow of death into the light with a grateful smile on his face. Inspiring stuff.