127 Hours is the new film by Danny Boyle, made of the back of the success of Slumdog Millionaire, starring James Franco as Aron Ralston, an extreme sports obsessive, who gets his arm trapped under a boulder for 127 hours. Having gone alone and without having told anyone where he was going, he is stranded. Facing a lack of rations and severe weather conditions, Ralston muses on his relationships with his family and friends, realising that he has foolishly kept everyone at a distance. In the end, he resorts to desperate measures in order to survive.
Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, as well as numerous other accolades, 127 Hours has become something of a surprise hit. However, it has a good many flaws, particularly from a directorial standpoint. Danny Boyle looks and sounds like an absolute chancer. His previous work has been varied at best, with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting being very uneven films that don’t work the way they should and Sunshine degenerating from a film with a lot of potential into a stupid and crass slasher film. To put it simply, Danny Boyle’s films would be good if someone else made them.
127 Hours sees Boyle back to his old tricks. The opening ten minutes employ all sorts of flashy editing tricks, from split-screens to jump cuts. This is done presumably to show how vacuous Ralston’s adrenaline fuelled lifestyle is, a form of extroverted misanthropic loneliness. But Boyle doesn’t quit. Even when Ralston is trapped to the canyon and largely immobile, the camera jumps all over the place, shooting in and out of the canyon and filming him from inside a water bottle (more of which later). An attempt at creating a mood of isolation and helplessness is constantly undercut by Boyle’s prancing and dancing camera. For a proper film about a character stuck alone in a small space see Buried.
What’s worse is that Boyle’s apparent showboating tarnishes everything else in the film. James Franco is very impressive, delivering a performance that is entirely convincing and a genuine step up for the actor. However, Boyle’s impatient and jittery film cannot hold a shot long enough for us to feel properly introduced to Franco’s character. We rarely even get to have a good view of him, as the shots used prioritise extreme close-ups and shots from behind Franco. We are never given the chance to watch a performance and by the end it doesn’t even seem like he has changed all that much. A case in point, the previously mentioned shot from inside Ralston’s water bottle. At this point in the film, Ralston decides to just finish his water and be done with it. Here, what is of interest is Franco’s performance, playing a man completely at the end of his tether. Instead, Boyle shows us what a water bottle would see when someone is drinking out of it. The shot does not look good and it does not further the drama, it is just ridiculous. And, as such, it is incredibly annoying.
Because the final sequence fails to be life affirming and joyous, largely due to the fact that Boyle shoots it like a typically terrible “X Factor” human-interest montage (as well as this, the apparently vacuous split-screen sequence returns, destroying any sense that Ralston has been changed for the better by his experience), the end result is a film that feels like it has been sabotaged by a director desperate to be noticed. Every good thing about the film, from its performances to its cinematography to its general theme, is undermined by a camera in constant search of a cool, new angle to shoot from and frenetic editing that won’t let you get a good look at anything. A real pity.