Considering his career-long interest in man’s alternately harmonious and hostile relationship with his environment, Werner Herzog would have been an ideal choice to helm 127 Hours, the story of climber and canyoneer Aron Ralston, who spent the titular duration at the bottom of Utah’s Blue John canyon, his arm wedged between a boulder and a rock wall. On the other hand, the film’s actual director, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), proves an awkward fit for such material, engaging in hyper-stylized kineticism in an attempt to refract his tale through the very media-saturated filters that Aron (played by James Franco) himself embraced. Opening with a trifurcated screen drowning in pulsating music and awash in hustle and bustle – crowds clapping, running and praying, as well as fast food signs and Aron’s own constantly moving hands and eyes – Boyle immediately establishes the frantic hubbub that defines Aron’s Gatorade-fueled extreme-sports life. Once out in the vast mountainous unknown, Aron bikes hard and, soon thereafter, flirts hard with two girls (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) he encounters, his digital video and still cameras always at the ready, so that even upon wiping out on his bike, he instinctively snaps a self-portrait. It’s a frenzied life played, recorded and replayed at light speed.
This happy-go-lucky fun comes to a grinding halt when Aron slips in a crevasse and an enormous rock lands on his arm, thereby immobilizing him in a remote hidden location. Rather than switching aesthetic gears to concentrate on Aron’s solitude, however, Boyle maintains his stylistic spazziness. Be it through impressionistic flashbacks, rapid-fire montages, or a habitual need to provide innumerable, largely unnecessary angles and perspective on a given image and scene, the director refuses to allow a minute to pass free from intrusive embellishment. As his water supply diminishes and thoughts of amputation become more pressing, Aron’s fear, desperation and loneliness should take center stage, and to his credit, Franco does his best to express his protagonist’s anxiety, fortitude and regret amidst the sound-and-fury barrage perpetrated by Boyle. Such efforts, however, are ultimately overwhelmed by a flurry of cinematographic and soundtrack gestures (non-diegetic sound effects, ‘70s pop songs, smeary lenses and hazy hallucinations). From start to finish, the director proves so unwilling to let a moment breathe with sustained human emotion, or to linger in the terrifying silence and emptiness that surely filled Aron’s days and nights, that the film winds up operating at a palpable remove.
That disinterest in Aron’s quiet isolation becomes even more pronounced once the film begins dramatizing his memories of parents, an ex-girlfriend, and his unborn son, all of which – along with his first-person videotape monologues – convey the man’s self-imposed, pre-accident alienation from those who cared for him. It’s a theme that’s hammered home with thudding bluntness, such that the inevitable triumphant climax finds Aron screaming, with heavy symbolic import, “I need help!” That final note encapsulates 127 Hours, which, blessed with a true story of an adventurer challenging himself – mentally, physically and spiritually – in the unforgiving wilderness, persistently goes for the neat, tidy and obvious even as its scenario practically demands a more dreamlike, introspective treatment. A scene in which the trapped Aron eagerly awaits a brief touch of sunshine gets at man’s loving/violent bond with nature and history. Yet like Aron spying ancient rock-wall drawings, it’s a moment rendered superficial by Boyle’s surrounding look-at-me tomfoolery, as well as a glimpse at the type of pensive, oblique, quasi-mystical film that a less manic, more contemplative filmmaker like Herzog might have crafted from this amazing saga.