Tuesday, 6 November 2012

127 Hours (2010)

Dir. Danny Boyle
Starring: James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clémence Poésy 

In 2003 Aron Ralston travelled off canyoneering in the cracked and fissured terrain of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. He went alone and he told no one where he was going. This meant that when he lost his footing and ended up with his arm pinned by a fallen boulder at the bottom of an isolated slot canyon no one knew where he was. He was lost, trapped and without a hope of a rescue. Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is the story of his ordeal.  

This is a tale of survival in the most extreme circumstances. Unlike Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild Aron (here played by James Franco, previously seen – uncredited – in Nights in Rodanthe) likes the great outdoors but he does not fetishise it. He fetishises himself. He is an adrenaline junkie outdoors nut. He sees himself as a “big fucking hard hero” able to deal with any problem himself. And as a result he pushes away those close to him. He is a solitary superman through his own choices and inclinations. But when his choices and actions leave him trapped he has to reassess the decisions he has made in his life. In No Country for Old Men Chigurh rationalises his killing of passers-by: every choice, decision, action has led to the intersection at the same time of that person, himself, and the coin he will toss to decide whether they live or die. Likewise Aron is forced to confront the reality that every choice or decision he has made, every action he has taken has led to his present predicament. “I chose this. I chose all this. This rock… this rock has been waiting for me my entire life; it’ entire life, ever since it was a 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 outer surface.” If he had not pushed his girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) away she would have been with him. If he had answered his mother’s phonecall that morning he could have told her where he was going. If he hadn’t parted company with the two hikers he had met (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara) they could have helped. If he hadn’t left his Gatorade in the truck, if he had pickd up his Swiss Army penknife… Reflecting on his life he recognises that he has found himself in his present situation simply because of his “supreme selfishness”. 

He may be selfish but he is ingenious. Considering that Aron is stuck by himself at the bottom of the canyon for 127 hours he has a lot of time to fill. His engineering training comes in useful. Up to a point. He can fashion himself a harness to support his weight. He can use a stick as a hook when he drops his Leatherman. He can work out what he would need to support a pully system to pull the boulder off his arm. He also tries to chisel away at the edges of the boulder with his blunt Leatherman in the hope of being able to dislodge it. Unfortunately gravity means that the boulder only settles more firmly onto his trapped right hand. In the end he is out of water, out of food, out of battery and out if time. He has to do a very grave piece of root cause analysis. What traps him where he is? A boulder on his arm. Can he free his arm from underneath the boulder? No. In that case, can he free himself from his trapped arm? Using the can-opener tool of his Leatherman to hack through his own flesh the answer is: possibly. Recognising that the hand and forearm is going to be lost anyway he chooses to try and save the remainder of his body rather than face certain death. It takes a lot of guts to make such a decision. Seeing the resultant action as he forces his bone to break and then saws through muscle, nerve and tendon to separate himself from his pinioned flesh is genuinely gruesome. 127 Hours is far more sickening than anything that can be seen in ‘video nasties’ like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Evil Dead or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The violence and gore is a result not of evil or madness but of cold, calm rational deliberation. The only other scene in a film I can think of that made me squirm quite so much was in A Clockwork Orange (the scene where Alex’s eyes are clamped open and water is dripped into them). 

It may be horrifying but director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 2012 Olympics opening ceremony fame) clearly has fun playing around with the medium. He utilises a variety of styles to capture scenes. Aron relates his impressions into a Sony Palmcorder. Early on some of Aron’s action exploits are captured in a grainier lower resolution mode. He uses splitscreens more extensively than an episode of 24. The first time he sucks on his Camelbak the camera gives a view of the water rushing up the tube. Playfulness I thought. Of course, the drinking of water and the lack of it becomes increasingly important later on… My favourite shot though is Aron shouting for help. The camera is pointing directly down towards him. And then, like zooming out on Google Earth the camera goes up, up, up, the scene expands. He is a man, at the bottom of a fissure, off another canyon, in a rocky plateau, in the middle of miles and miles of empty wilderness. This one shot clearly shows quite how isolated and alone and without a chance of rescue Aron is. 
He had written to the council three times,
yet still nothing had been done about the pot holes
I liked 127 Hours. It is like a modern-day A Christmas Carol: presentiments of mortality make a selfish individual reflect back upon his life and vow to be a better person. But with better scenery.  

What have I learnt about Utah?
If you were not aware that Utah was an outdoor adventure sports mecca you would be after watching this film. The attraction of the baked brick-red landscape is palpable. The area of Canyonlands is one great rock plateau with gorges and slot canyons carved out of the sandstone by the action of water over millennia. In Canyonlands you can hike, climb, canyoneer and even swim. You can cycle too, though as the end credits point out only certain trails are cyclable, and neither Aron Ralston nor James Franco cycled away from the permitted routes. 

While the general climate is one of dry heat the area does get rain. Storms even. With no topsoil to soak it up rainwater runs straight off the rock into gullys and canyons in flash floods. Being trapped in one of these canyons as it rapidly fills with water is hence not a very good idea. This scene in the movie turns out just to be a hallucination by Aron, however. 

The area really is wilderness. You can trek for hours without meting anyone and mobile phones cannot get reception (or they couldn’t back in 2003 anyway). This underlines the importance of notifying people of your planned routes and timings. It is no surprise that Butch Cassidy and his gang were able to successfully hide away in the maze of canyons, as Aron relates.

We don’t see much of the wildlife of Utah: a raven, a lizard and some ants and that is it. 

Can we go there?
Well, okay. But don’t travel alone, ensure that you have a full survival kit and notify someone where you intend to be and when you intend to be back. 

Those caveats aside I can understand your desire to visit the area. The action takes place in Canyonlands National Park and it looks stunning. Aron leaves his truck at the Horseshoe Canyon trailhead (the Horseshoe Canyon section is a ‘detached unit’ several miles to the west of the rest of the Park). He leads Kristi and Megan through the Robbers Roost area. He gets trapped in Blue John Canyon, about 40 miles away from the nearest paved road. The boulder that trapped his arm can still be seen in situ (though it was shifted to retrieve his arm). Blue John was not used for the filming however; a more accessible – and supposedly better looking – alternative, Leprechaun Canyon was used instead. When he escapes he leaves via Horseshoe Canyon; the canyon’s prehistoric rock art (known as ‘the Great Gallery’) is seen. 

The pool used by Aron, Kristi and Megan early in the film was a fictitious addition. It was shot at the Crater at Homestead Resort, Midway, not far south-east of Salt Lake City. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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