We’ve all been there: trapped, alone, with wealthy people offering us millions of dollars to chop off our feet, eat someone else, or hand over a kid to the Nazis.
Okay, none of us have ever been there -- and with any luck, we never will. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from pegging some of its greatest movies on morally complex, self-preservation-minded questions that in the immortal words of C+C Music Factory can only make you go “Hmmm.”
These days, James Franco is spending 127 Hours contemplating one such question at a theater near you. As the actor portrays real-life imperiled mountaineer Aron Ralston, director Danny Boyle and his Hours team hope that you’ll watch, wince, and worry: “Could I saw off my own arm if it was the only way I could stay alive?”
With that in mind, here are 8 films that have similarly posed questions we’d never want to answer with any certainty. From Alive to Sophie’s Choice, we love grappling with their central dilemmas -- as long as the only danger we’re really dealing with is our flat Pepsi and over-salted popcorn.
Saw Sure, after umpteen lousy sequels, it’s easy to dismiss this franchise as uninspired torture-porn, but to do so is to overlook the moral implications of the original, low-budget 2004 indie film that began it all. Saw presented many provocative questions (Could you kill someone to save yourself? Do bad people deserve cruel punishment? etc.), but the pivotal query revolves around the titular tool. As Cary Elwes sits chained in a bathroom filthy enough to rival anything at the Vince Lombardi Service Center, a hacksaw the only thing within reach, the question is as simple as it horrifying: “Would you hack through your own leg, or die in that room?” Squirms -- and one of the great twist endings of the last decade -- await those brave enough to watch through their fingers.
Alive You know you’re in for a tough moviegoing experience when a film contains the most vivid, horrifying plane crash in cinematic history -- and that’s before things get bad. Much like 127 Hours, this classic drama is based on a true story of anguish, physical fortitude and ultimate triumph. You can bet that everyone who finished this movie asked themselves the same question: “Could I --would I? --- eat another human being to stay alive?” Maybe it really does taste like chicken, but we don’t ever want to find out.
Sophie’s Choice The ultimate “central question” movie, this Oscar-winning drama still ranks as the great Meryl Streep’s most powerful performance. Told through a series of flashbacks, we see her Sophie Zawistowski sent to Auschwitz and forced by a Nazi offer to make a disturbing choice: Choose one of her children to die, or both of them will. It’s a question that made for a powerful drama, and one that still haunts all these years later.
Crimes & Misdemeanors Underneath this Woody Allen classic’s blend of humor and drama, beyond its superb exploration of philosophical questions that could fuel any college class for weeks, there is the Martin Landau storyline that might just present the most plausible argument for murder ever seen on screen. Landau’s character is a good man who makes one huge mistake -- infidelity -- shared by so many. As he gets painted into a corner that could ruin his entire life, it’s hard to not ask yourself: “Would I?”
The Box The most recent movie on our list, this Cameron Diaz-James Marsden film posed a brilliantly complex question: “Would you sign the death warrant of someone you’ve never met for a million dollars?” Unfortunately, the movie itself was far from brilliant -- and don’t get us started on the aliens. Yeah, aliens.
The Matrix There was much to love about this mind-bending action flick that transformed an entire genre, but it all hinged on one simple question: Would you take the red pill (and open your eyes to the horrors of reality) or pop the blue pill (and remain happily oblivious to it all)? It’s a question we all face every day, usually through tiny decisions that have us questioning the answers, self-medicating, hiding in gated communities, etc. -- for better or worse, the decision will never be presented to us so simply by Morpheus. Sure, we’d like to think we’d follow Neo’s path, but all these years later it’s still impossible to watch that scene and not wonder which color you’d really choose.
Funny Games This one didn’t do very well at the box office and, quite frankly, maybe the fewer people who see this demented American adaptation of a story about two twisted youngsters and the family they torture, the fewer f-ed up copycats might decide it looks like a good idea. Those willing to play along, however, can watch in horror asking themselves: “At what point is enough too much?” For Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, it’s a question that dictates their willingness to do what their captors say, hoping it will keep them alive; for the audience, the same question applies to when we’ll finally turn the movie off.
Indecent Proposal Back in 1993, this hot-button film had everyone asking themselves the un-askable: “Would I let someone else sleep with my partner in exchange for a million dollars?” Looking back now, Robert Redford and the creepy dude from The Box really need to start spending their money better. But fortunately for our own entertainment, wherever there is a morally dubious question ripe for cinematic exploration, there always seems to be a bored multi-millionaire wielding a suitcase and a smile.
What would YOU do in any of these situations? Tell us below.