November 24, 2010

127 Hours in 94 Riveting Minutes

The other night I had a dream, or rather a nightmare, that our cat was trapped in an unplugged microwave for three days until I was able to break the door open and rescue her. Her eyes were bloodshot and her tired, sweaty body was bruised and bloodied in a few spots; her right hind leg was stripped of flesh and fur almost to the bone. As I woke up in a hazy state, it didn't take long for me to peg 127 Hours as the inspiration for my subconscious. Thankfully I don't have dreams like this often, and our cat is just fine, but this movie has haunted my mind for a week not only because of the nightmarish, climactic battle between mind and body, but also because of the questions this incredibly simple story raised about relationships, independence, family, regret, determination, and even technology.

Much more than the nerve-wracking "thriller" I expected, 127 Hours is a tender, even beautiful tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. It's a film that jars you awake from the tedious monotony of the cinematic landscape, engaging instead of entertaining and not compromising for the sake of your viewing comfort. So does the Saw franchise, one could argue, but while I've never seen any of those movies, I've also never been under the impression that they have the artistic, acting, or even comic merit exhibited in 127 Hours.

I've established myself as a Slumdog Millionaire champion, but I might just as well profess my admiration for Danny Boyle's entire filmography, including The Beach, which I enjoyed despite the atrocious reviews it received. Personally I never find the substance of Boyle's films overshadowed by the style of them - on the contrary I don't think they would be nearly as rich without the creative risks that he takes (yes, even the video game scene in The Beach). While 127 Hours predictably features flashback and dream sequences to illustrate Aron Ralston's mental state, it was Boyle's creative use of images and sound effects that really pulled me in.

As the viewer, my senses were heightened in the same way they might have been were I trapped in Ralston's position. I felt thirsty, cold, and sore, like I could see more clearly and hear more acutely. If you've ever fasted before, you know of the heightened sense of awareness your body develops, almost like a sixth sense, and I felt Boyle really tapped into that mind-body disconnect. Not surprisingly, this mental madness is also portrayed in the minds of drug users in a number of films, most similarly in Boyle's own Trainspotting and Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The camera is framed in impossible places (e.g., the bottom of a water bottle), the sound effects are exaggeratedly amplified (e.g., the slurping from said water bottle), and the slightest hint of a daydream turns into an extended, vividly rendered fantasy (e.g., the thirst-quenching commercial montage). All of this results in a very engrossing viewing experience, and for me it adds to the tone of the story instead of distracting from it (which, ironically, I felt A.R. Rahman's soundtrack was occasionally guilty of doing).

But this is all very technical, and 127 Hours didn't only impress me on a technical level. I followed the Ralston news when it happened years ago, but never considered or expected that it would make such a compelling parable on screen. I was in awe of Ralston's optimism and even-keeled mental state as he expected and planned for his death, while at the same time never really accepting it would happen. His predicament created the ultimate "What would you do?" scenario, but in 127 Hours, Boyle also makes you wonder, "What would you think about?" and, chillingly, "How long would you last?". Having dissected a human cadaver before, I thought I might be able to handle the graphic amputation scene. I was wrong, and I had to look away when Ralston
violently tugged at his nerve (I remember hearing him in interviews saying that was the worst part, and I still just can't believe he didn't pass out). As difficult as those few minutes were to watch, what had me even more on edge were the minutes prior to his entrapment, the horror of knowing what he didn't know as he joyfully skipped into Blue John Canyon. 

And that foreshadowing of fate, that underlying possibility of what might happen to anyone at any given time - that's what has been lingering with me from this film. I don't know whether Aron Ralston wakes up every morning and thinks about his experience in that canyon, making a conscious decision to "live each day like it was your last", or any other such cliché. But the decisions he made in the days before he set off alone, to not answer a phone call, or to take a particular relationship for granted, or to not give someone his full attention who deserved it, those are the things that haunt me. I've been guilty of these same habits (in addition to being fiercely, stubbornly independent), and I expect many others are as well. And while the physical pain of being trapped under a rock would be debilitating, I fear the mental anguish of regret would be worse. I'm not necessarily living differently than I was a week ago, but I'm thinking about my life a little differently, and this Thanksgiving I hope to be consciously appreciative of the people around me on a daily basis.


  1. Just got home from seeing this. It's an amazing movie, and I like how you say that it engages you instead of just entertaining you. That's certainly true. I was totally engaged by this powerful film but I was also totally entertained by Franco's magnificent performance and Danny Boyle's perfect editing and dynamic cinematography! The film is obviously pointed in its message - Aron was an isolationist who felt like he was the big hero who didn't need anybody, and he learns the importance of people. But as obvious as the message is, the film hits home effectively, and you really do come out of the movie thinking about how one might change oneself for the better, so I know where you're coming from when you say, "and this Thanksgiving I hope to be consciously appreciative of the people around me on a daily basis."

    Well, Daniel, I'll match you on that and say that I've really enjoyed reading your blog posts and getting your comments on my blog for nearly two years. I've really appreciated your sense of humor and your total lack of arrogance. I'll always remember the fun we had going back and forth on the lapses of logic in Knowing. That exchange really made me glad I had started a blog! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  2. Uddhav from India, I really love your reviews and this was one of the most heartfelt posts you have written.

    I can't wait to catch 127 hours when it releases here.

    Take care and Happy Thanksgiving.

  3. Hokahey, the very same to you and I hope you had a great Thanksgiving. It's been all I can do the last 6 months to see a new movie in the theater, let alone find time to write about one, let alone read what anyone else has to say about it. Hopefully in the new year my job and extracurriculars will calm down a bit. Definitely miss checking out a lot of great blogs, including of course yours.

    Uddhav, nice to make your acquaintance and thanks for reading!

  4. Daniel. Hang in there. I think technology makes everybody's job busier. As a teacher, I feel it adds more work than it saves work. So, I understand, but be sure to come back.

  5. Hope you all had a great Turkey Day Dan!

    I am also to be counted as a fan of 127 HOURS, and much appreciated that stellar Franco lead, the pulsating score by Rahman, Mantle's riveting and visceral camerwork, and the superlative orchestration by Boyle. I do well remember too how much you adored SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

  6. Thanks, Hokahey. I plan on it, but it's been a slog this year.

    Sam, same to you! I expect you and your brood had a great holiday weekend. 127 Hours should be a strong Oscar contender and is among the year's best in my book, though that may not be saying much since I've seen so few new releases.

  7. Great to hear it had such an impact on you Daniel. I'm really looking forward to see this sometime in the next few days. Having only heard raving reviews about the movie and with the trailer being so well put together, my expectations are really high!

  8. Well, Castor, I've seen that it hasn't worked for everyone, but I was definitely affected. Not really emotionally but intellectually...or something. I wasn't "moved" in the traditionally way so much as I was personally challenged.

  9. I love how you incorporated your dream into your film commentary. Your use of personal anecdotes flows seamlessly with the more film specific aspects of your post. Great writing job!

  10. Thanks, Michaela - and thanks for visiting!

  11. Wow... really? I find Boyle to all-too sophomoric... pound you in the face with cuts and music, etc, etc. This is better than Slumdog in at least it's not some neatly wrapped poverty tour, but I found 127 a predictable snoozer. Not lyrical or tender in the least.

    Plus, there's nothing heroic or triumphant about Ralston. The story may be compelling, but he was dumb and wreckless... that more than anything put him in a bad situation.

  12. Yep, really.

    I don't think anyone is calling Ralston heroic; I agree that he was reckless - that was basically my point, and it freaked me out because at times I can have an independent streak like he did.


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