Who’s In It: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Treat Williams, Clemence Poesy, Kate Burton, Lizzy Caplan
The Basics: Freewheeling extreme hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco) loves camping in the middle of nowhere with only his gear and his survival skills. Part of the appeal is in getting away from it all – the hustle and bustle of city life, his mother’s phone calls, cute French girlfriends who want more than what an emotionally unavailable nature nerd-loner can give. That is, until Aron falls into a crevasse and gets stuck in Utah’s Blue John Canyon with his arm trapped under a boulder and realizes how much he’d rather be hanging out with all of the people he’d been avoiding instead of the ants and ravens who’re watching him slowly run out of food and water.
What’s The Deal: Director Danny Boyle assembles his Slumdog Millionaire team (writer Simon Beaufoy, producer Christian Colson, composer A.R. Rahman) to tell the harrowing true story of Aron Ralston, who emerged from six nightmarish days of entrapment in the wild minus an arm but having gained a renewed perspective on life. Boyle and Co. keep their tale moving along with visual pizazz by tracking Aron’s daily attempts at survival and escape, although the self-congratulatory gimmickry gets old fast (split-screen Franco, repetitive flashbacks, a CG flash flood, cameras inside of water bottles that peer straight down last Franco’s uvula). The film gives us a window into his character through flashbacks -- and as the days wear on, his escalating string of delirious hallucinations -- so that by the time the desperate Aron decides to make his big break, we can feel every sliced nerve ending and hacked up piece of arm meat as if they’re our own. Is it terribly complex and fraught with meaningful subtext? Not especially, though it seems to think it is. But it is an effective, intimate, and life-affirming real life tale that hammers in some key lessons: Take a moment to pack that Swiss army knife, don't tell cute girls you just met that you listen to Phish, and always tell someone where you’re going.
Where Things Get A Bit Muddled: The same place Danny Boyle often has trouble -- the ending. After days of attempting escape, recording video journals, talking to himself, laughing at the irony of it all, and mournfully accepting his fate, Aron is spurred to self-mutilation only after having a vision of himself playing with his future son. The logic of this premonition doesn’t exactly come through in Boyle’s execution, but the big scene has to happen somehow and the real-life Aron claimed to have such a vision, so why not? The fact that we all know how 127 Hours is going to end in Saw-like body horror helps Boyle mask his habitual problem with last acts, but he’s clearly still working out the kinks. (For further proof, see: The Beach, Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and -- I’m sorry, folks -- Slumdog Millionaire.)
Who Comes Out On Top: James Franco, who strikes a likable crunchy-hippie-nature lover persona in his most smiley role to date. Franco’s Aron is effervescently upbeat even when he knows he’s screwed, intelligent and practical enough to MacGyver makeshift levers and pulleys with the insufficient supplies he’s got; in a way, he’s the perfect kind of person to get stuck in a situation like this. To his credit, Franco is what keeps us riveted and invested for 94 minutes – and he does so by standing in the same spot for most of that time.
Why 127 Hours Is The Most Unlikely-Sounding Holiday Movie of 2010: It reminds us that our comfy modern lives are only encumbered by the invisible, man-made, or made-up obstacles we allow to get in the way. (Unless you’re currently stuck to a rock in the middle of nowhere, in which case you have an excuse for not returning Mom’s phone calls.) This Thanksgiving, be thankful that you don’t have to cut your own arm off with a dull utility blade just to eat turkey with the friends and family you sometimes can’t stand but love!