Danny Boyle has taken us to the surface of the sun (“Sunshine”) and the end of the world as we know it (“28 Days Later”), testing the limits of human endurance with each radically different project. “127 Hours” takes the adrenaline rush one step further, pitting man against nature in the most elemental of struggles as Boyle compresses the true story of rock-climbing junkie Aron Ralston, who spent five days wrestling with a boulder after a rockslide pinned his arm against a canyon wall, into an intense 93 minutes. Marketed correctly, pic should spell another hit for the high-energy helmer.
On paper, “127 Hours” would seem to buck convention on multiple fronts: The film revolves around a single actor (James Franco) stuck in one location (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” to borrow the title of Ralston’s memoir) for most of its running time, and though it packs an uplifting ending, that emotional victory comes at the expense of the hero’s right arm — depicted in a gruesome climax that caused a number of people to faint at the film’s premiere in Telluride (located just three hours from Bluejohn Canyon, Utah, where the events took place).
Blatantly noncommercial elements aside, Boyle and co-writer Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) have managed to craft quite an accessible film after all, opening up the action with a sexy prologue featuring two lost hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, whose carefree early scenes would feel right at home in Boyle’s “The Beach”) and using several hallucinatory visions drawn directly from Ralston’s book, all the better to re-create his frame of mind at the time — a task that relies on two cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, to achieve the film’s gorgeous supersaturated look.
While Franco can sometimes be a wild card, getting increasingly self-conscious with recent roles (most notably his guest-starring stunt on “General Hospital”), his take on Ralston feels both credible and compelling; few actors could have made us care so much, or disappeared so completely into the role. With very little time to establish the young man’s backstory, Franco uses his Method acting technique to slip into Ralston’s skin, making it that much easier for us to vicariously do the same. We “get” him instantly, thanks in part to an energetic opening montage, spread across three rapidly changing screens and cut to Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again,” that places the young engineering student’s interest in the outdoors within the broader American phenomenon of extreme sports. Ralston may be rather reckless, flipping his bike and so forth on his way to the canyon, but he knows what he’s doing, and the accident wasn’t necessarily his fault: While he was testing his weight on a loose chockstone, the rock gave way and crushed him beneath it.
Over the course of the next hour, Ralston will cycle through all five stages of grief (with “acceptance” ultimately being the decision to remove his arm), while making room for some serious soul-searching. Ralston replays memories of his family, an intimate night shared with g.f. Megan (Clemence Poesy) and his eventual breakup — all serving to interrupt the monotony of dehydration and helplessness. As the days pass, his visions become more vivid and abstract — one day he hosts an unsettling gameshow-like monologue with himself, complete with laugh track, the next he dreams of a harrowing flash flood — before culminating in a fateful premonition.
Just as director Rodrigo Cortes did in the recent stuck-in-a-coffin thriller “Buried,” Boyle constantly repositions the camera to help dispel the potential claustrophobia of it all, sometimes pulling weird trick shots (such as the straw’s-eye view of Ralston’s dwindling water supply). Since the real Ralston brought a camcorder along on the hike, the film treats some of the footage as if the character were documenting the situation himself, letting the writers get away with a fair amount of explanatory dialogue, along with the occasional tension-breaking one-liner.
As nerve-racking as the whole predicament is, it’s surprising how much humor manages to sneak in, with A.R. Rahman’s Western-sounding synthpop score building from tension to ultimate triumph (with a boost from the original Dido collaboration “If I Rise”). Many will come out of sheer curiosity about Ralston’s self-administered amputation (whether or not they manage to keep their eyes open during the scene itself), but the scenes that follow are even more effective, right up to the closing images of the real Ralston, still chasing the adrenaline dream.