Utah Outside movie review: “127 Hours”
Those of us living in Utah are well versed in the tale of Aron Ralston, the man who famously became stuck in southern Utah’s Blue John Canyon when a chockstone came loose and smashed on his hand, pinning it to the slot canyon wall. In an act of courage, determination and desperation, Ralston cut off his hand in order to escape after days of waiting for rescue that never came. The story made world headlines and turned Ralston into the poster-child of gritty, wilderness survival. The story caught the eye of Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionare) and he made Ralston’s ordeal into the movie 127 Hours.
If you’ve read Ralston’s book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, then you pretty much know what to expect. Ralston gets stuck, spends days chipping away at the rock trying to free himself, makes a video diary, dreams, conserves water, and drinks his own urine when the water runs out. Sounds like a pretty boring movie. But Danny Boyle manages to keep the audience engaged for the entire film. Thanks to his signature stylistic flourishes, a story about a man who stays in one place, alone, with an unresponsive rock as an antagonist turns out to be exciting, suspenseful, riveting, and even uplifting.
The uplifting part is the surprising part. Beyond the narrative of the film is an undercurrent with a message that our own lives can mean nothing without the love of people around us. At the beginning of 127 Hours, Ralston is a selfish person who seeks his next adrenaline fix at the expense of his friends and family. His torturous experience with the rock in that canyon forces him to reflect on how he got into that situation, and the fact that if only he told someone where he was going, then he would have been rescued very quickly. His agonizing time spent in the canyon also forces him to think back on his mistakes, and look forward to the life he wishes he could lead, which ultimately becomes the motivation to do the unthinkable in order to save himself and survive. And in the end, he even thanks the rock before he leaves it.
All of this emotion and self-reflection falls on the talents of actor James Franco, who portrays Ralston and gives a nuanced, realistic performance. His physical and mental transformation from a cocky do-no-wrong goofball to someone who becomes humbled and terrified is award winning stuff, and his performance completely anchors the movie. Especially impressive are the scenes where he records himself with a handheld video camera to tell his loved ones, and the world, goodbye.
In the end, however, we all know Ralston makes it out alive after severing his arm with a dull knife, and the scene has gotten a lot of hype. Supposedly people have fainted in the theaters when the limb is carved off. Yes, the scene is intense and graphic, but not exploitative. When Ralston breaks his bones, the sound is like a gunshot. The blade of his small multi-tool digging into flesh and tendons is flashed in closeup. And the moment of nerves being severed is ear-splitting and almost unbearable. But the blood isn’t what makes the scene so intense. Instead, it’s the fact that we’re with Ralston in that tiny space the entire movie, and when he perform his self amputation, the culmination of our shared experience throws us into that situation with him as he is desperately freed from a desert tomb.
Of course nothing is ever without controversy, and many outdoor recreation enthusiasts in Utah feel that after book and movie deals, Ralston is banking on his stupidity of entering Blue John Canyon alone, without telling anybody where he was going. Although this mistake was almost fatal for him, (most of us have probably done it ourselves) you can’t help but admire the man for his bravery and courage by doing what needed to be done to survive. He follows the classic Hero’s Journey, literally descending into a labyrinth to vanquish a monster and emerge with a gift that changes his life forever. Only in Ralston’s case, the monster is himself. Whether you love or hate Ralston, the tale is powerful.
127 Hours is one hell of a Utah story, one hell of an outdoor story, and one hell of a survival story that simply should not be missed.
127 Hours opens in Utah on November 19th.