Danny Boyle specialises in turning the corporeal existence of humans into high art, evoking a rare empathy from the audience
Some people make the same movie over and over again. Aron Ralston’s horrific experience in Blue John Canyon, Utah, wasn’t the most important thing that happened in 2003, but Danny Boyle makes a living from searching for the extremities of human endurance. His Trainspotting, about a group of heroin addicts, tells of the lines they cross for their high and what they go through in ‘cold turkey’. Slumdog Millionaire is a survival story about the volatile proximity between poverty and violence.
All his films get down to the basics of human corporeal existence—shitting, pissing, vomiting—and use considerable cinematic imagination to depict those bodily functions. In 127 Hours, Boyle adds amputation and blood letting to his list of vivid possibilities on film. His audiences squirm, rarely see his movies a second time, but have instant recall of each crucial scene.
Ordinarily, this would be called exploitation cinema, but Boyle has turned it into high art, and, in truth, in 127 Hours, the hallucinations of Aron (James Franco) as he trips out on the horror of his predicament are very well done, even moving at times.
At first, we see flashes of the immediate past, the two girls he met shortly before his accident, his visual construction of the party they must be at, their vibrant sexuality. Then we see scenes from his past, and mixed with that, intimations of a future, a premonition of a time ahead after his possible extrication. Footage from his digital camera is interspersed with this, and a surreal psychological existence is created to give us some idea of how Aron kept his sanity; by keeping track of the reality of the passing of time, yet occasionally drifting off into the relief of fantasy.
An avid hiker, mountain lover and canyoneer, Aron was introduced to this stark landscape at an early age and fell in love with the beauty and desolation of prehistoric earth that the topography evokes.
When he is trapped in a crevice, with his hand jammed between a fallen boulder and the canyon’s inner surface, he preserves his sense of aesthetics to admire the beauty of his surroundings—the 15 minutes of sunlight that streams into the crevice every morning, the raven that glides past the slit of sky he sees, the insects that keep him company. In a beautiful panoramic shot, just after he is trapped, the camera pulls out gradually from Aron to the canyon surface, to the surrounding terrain, to the uninhabited world outside and to our bleak recognition of the impossibility of his rescue.
What the director strives at creating is a sense of human empathy so acute that a mirror identification evolves. We put ourselves in his shoes and ask what we would have done. Aron Ralston says that we would all have to do what he eventually did. But, clearly, a specific personality type is required, both to get into the mess he did by taking off on his own without intimating anyone of his whereabouts, and then to disentangle himself from a part of his own anatomy.
This is where 127 Hours really works, by using the mind to look at itself, something it rarely does. So, finally, when Aron’s exhausted brain catches itself wandering away from the reality of his certain demise should he take no action on separating his arm from himself, it finally stops wandering. The brain orders his left arm to use his ‘Made In China’ penknife for a purpose it was never designed.