Part of the allure of Utah's Blue John Canyon is that it's so pure and unspoiled...so sprawling and isolated that days can pass without stumbling upon much of anyone. That's how Aron Ralston (James Franco) likes it
too. He's an adventurer...an explorer. There's no thrill in marching in lockstep with the guidebook. He prefers communing with the world around him without any distractions, and Blue John offers Aron the solitude he demands. Treks like this have gotten to be such a routine that Aron really doesn't even sweat it anymore. He doesn't bother to grab any more supplies than are conveniently in arm's reach, and...c'mon, a seasoned outdoorsman and a volunteer for the Rescue Service doesn't need to leave a note. That's not to say that Aron is reckless, but he feels that one person only can only drag around so many safety nets before they start to tighten like a noose. On this day in 2003, Aron soon finds himself looking back at all the little decisions he could've made: picking up the phone instead of letting his mom's call go to the machine, not being so cagy with his coworkers about where he was heading for the weekend, spending a few extra seconds nosing around for that Swiss army knife... A simple offhand remark or a more thorough peek at a closet shelf could've changed the course of his life entirely. A massive stone tumbles down as Aron explores the canyon, crushing his right arm. The rock's lodged far too tightly to move. He has no way to reach out to the world at large. No one knows where Aron is. He only packed enough supplies to last an afternoon. His food supply is limited to a microwave burrito, and he quickly finds himself with little water. There's no hope of rescue, and Aron realizes he has no chance of escaping with his arm intact. The thought of severing it enters his mind faster than most might expect, but even an act this extreme seems unlikely, armed with only a dull pen knife, trapped in a deep canyon, and still hours upon hours from removed his SUV. A long, painful death is unavoidable, yet Aron refuses to succumb to the inevitable, resulting in a harrowing story of courage -- of the will to live -- that gripped the attention of an entire country.
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Throughout almost every frame of its 94 minute runtime, the camera doesn't cut away from Aron Ralston. That's an astonishingly daring approach to take, revolving around a a single character and one who's essentially immobile at that. Few other directors possess the surehanded confidence to march down this path, and any other adaptation of this real-life incident likely would've been
distracted by friends and family buzzing around, following the rescue effort as it's mounted, and ekeing out tension from the disconnect between Aron and his rescuers...that he's all too aware they have no idea where he is. There are no syrupy strings. There is no weepy melodrama. There are no glimpses of the outside world. 127 Hours is Aron, the canyon, and the camera, and it's largely because of those limitations that the film resonates as deeply as it does. James Franco shoulders the movie with a spectacular performance, one that stands up to the revealing scrutiny of a camera that's invariably in close-up. The intensity and physicality Franco brings to the role are remarkable, especially considering how little room Aron's given to manuever. He may barely be able to move, but there's nothing even a little bit static about Franco's performance. Enduring unimaginable pain, endless days without sleep, dehydration, and facing the certainty that, despite his ingenuity, despite his many efforts, and despite his indomitable will to live, that death is looming. Franco brilliantly conveys that mental and physical unraveling, and so much of the power of 127 Hours stems from how human Aron is. Rather than paint Aron as some kind of hero, he's instead introduced radiating a sort of arrogant charm. He's likeable but not in a heavy-handedly manipulative way, and Aron's regret when he realizes how easily all of this could've been avoided -- or, at least, how simple it would be for his friends and family to track him down -- makes him a lot more relatable. By the same token, his resourcefulness, ingenuity, and courage in the face of such agony make for an engagingly cinematic character as well. I'm not at all the type to lob out phrases like "life-affirming" or "a triumph of the human spirit", but Aron's willpower and determination really are infectious. When his story's most infamous moment comes, Aron severing his own arm isn't portrayed as a defeat...it's a victory. As agonizing as that scene is to watch -- 127 Hours' cameras don't revel in that graphic imagery but don't flinch away from it either, fully conveying his pain, courage, and sacrifice -- there's also a sense of joy that follows in its immediate aftermath. I never would've thought a result like that would be possible to achieve.
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Danny Boyle's direction is propulsive, ensuring that the energy never lags despite 127 Hours swirling around one actor in one claustrophobic location. Sometimes it does get to be a bit much -- there are POV shots of everything, down to the innards of Aron's camera and even drips of water in a bottle -- but it's generally remarkably effective, only coming across as self-indulgent and distracting
a handful of times. Aron also keeps a camcorder handy, and that does give him someone to speak to, keeping the narrative far more accessible than it would've been otherwise. Impressively enough, that's not a cinematic construction either; the real-life Aron shot these videos as a way to help keep a grip on his sanity and, assuming the tape would be found with the rest of his remains, so his family would know what happened. I have mixed feelings about the use of flashbacks and hallucinations. They certainly have their place, since the combination of certain death with sleepless days and nights would cause anyone to think back to past regrets...to be tormented by disturbing visions. At the same time, these moments resonate the least with me. The focus is otherwise so intensely placed on the immediacy of the present that Aron's barely-explored past is too abstract to pack much of an emotional wallop, and the effectiveness of the hallucinations varies wildly. The relentless nitpicker in me thinks 127 Hours would've been better off if a couple of these had been snipped out...to tighten the focus and keep the momentum barrelling forward. The other downside is that because Aron spends a fair amount of time looking back or off to the side, the passage of time is less pronounced than it may have been otherwise. The days are spelled out on-screen, and there are frequent glimpses of Aron's watch, but I don't feel time ticking away as much as I feel I should. I'm sure that was a deliberately considered tradeoff, of course, and it's obviously hard to argue in favor of the monotony and endless repetition that tormented Aron in the canyon. These sorts of quibbles do little to drag down my overall enthusiasm of the film, of course.
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I'm in awe of 127 Hours. This is a challenging story to do justice, and Danny Boyle and James Franco approach it artfully, respectfully, and, to no surprise to anyone familiar with its immense critical acclaim, successfully as well. Out of the many thousands of movies I've watched over the past several decades, I've never seen one capture the will to live as effectively as 127 Hours. I can't recall ever having described a film as uplifting before, and that's a label 127 Hours wholly earns. This is a powerful, remarkable work that easily ranks among the year's best. Highly Recommended.
Especially throughout its earliest moments, 127 Hours looks phenomenal in high definition. Before Aron is pinned down in the canyon, the sunbaked palette practically leaps off the screen: the golden desert sand, the piercingly blue sky, and the breathtaking clarity of the underground lake. Saturation is slowly drained away when Aron becomes trapped, reflecting his gradual deterioration and only screaming back to life as he hallucinates. Definition and detail are both first-rate. This is to be expected in the canyon where seemingly every shot is a tight, revealing close-up, but even in the exteriors when the camera eases far back, it seems as if each and every grain of sand is clear and distinct. 127 Hours makes it a point to emphasize both the majestic natural beauty of the canyon as well as how far removed from any trace of civilization Aron is, and the effect of both would be blunted without this level of definition. Danny Boyle also boldly decides not to mask that 127 Hours was shot on video, instead emphasizing it and making that a part of the movie's visual aesthetic. Even with as cramped and constricted as the movie's setting is by design, Boyle ensures that it's always interesting visually, and that's no small feat. 127 Hours' presentation on Blu-ray is similarly flawless, not marred by any intrusive video noise, filtering, or edge enhancement.
127 Hours arrives on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The presentation is lightly letterboxed to an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and has been encoded with AVC.
Considering that the overwhelming majority of 127 Hours takes place in the space of a few inches, I wasn't expecting to be anywhere near as floored by its lossless audio as I am. The clarity and fidelity on display throughout this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is unreal, easily eclipsing anything DVD could ever hope to reproduce. Every last element in the mix is startlingly clean, clear, and distinct. The sound design does a spectacular job constructing a sense of place, teeming with subtle yet effective flourishes such as a fly circling around into each and every channel. The bass roars with thunderously low frequencies, from the tight, punchy bass in the score to the massive stone tumbling down onto Aron's arm to a violent storm rolling in. This is a film that's driven predominantly by James Franco's performance, and his dialogue never once struggles in the mix. This soundtrack is perfect.
Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are offered in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Subtitles have also been provided in each of those languages as well as English (SDH).
127 Hours is one of those very rare discs where all of the extras really are worth setting aside the time to watch. There's no filler lurking around anywhere in here.
- Deleted Scenes (34 min.; HD): This reel of deleted scenes opens with Aron spelling out the appeal of heading out into the wild on his own, and this is quickly followed by a longer hallucinatory house party. There are also a few short moments with Aron speaking to the camera, including one confessional in which he spells out his options for survival. Dramatically, it makes perfect sense that all of this would be cut, especially the 'four options' conversation that's better explored throughout the course of the film. What's really startling is that the alternate ending runs more than twenty minutes, continuing on well after where the theatrical cut ends. We see Aron in the hospital with his family, there's a glimpse of the media onslaught that erupted, fulfilling a promise to his sister (played by Lizzy Caplan), and reuniting with the girl that slipped away. There's no question that Danny Boyle picked the most dramatically resonant moment to end 127 Hours theatrically, and that impact would've been drained away with an aftermath of this length. Still, there are quite a number of intriguing moments here, and it's fascinating to see what could've been.
- 127 Hours: An Extraordinary View (36 min.; HD): Most making-of featurettes concentrate on the more technical, more tactile end of things: stuntwork, visual
effects, production design, and the like. Though there certainly is some of that throughout "An Extraordinary View", its emphasis is more heavily placed on Franco's performance and his very unconventional interaction with the rest of the crew. Basically, this featurette further delves into what makes 127 Hours so unique rather than run through the same checklist most behind-the-scenes pieces do. It's an engrossing look into how this project came together, including the real-life Aron Ralston's presence on the set, the improvisation and intense physicality that bring Franco's interpretation of Ralston to life, and pointing out how well-mapped his vocal and physical disintegration were...subtle enough to not be noticeable on the set but pronounced enough on-camera that it made rearranging scenes in editing impossible. I particularly enjoyed seeing the reactions of the crew during 127 Hours' most gruesome sequence, and Danny Boyle and his boundless energy are always a blast to watch.
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- Search and Rescue (15 min.; HD): 127 Hours unfolds entirely from Aron's perspective. The disc's second featurette, meanwhile, explores how his friends and family reacted to his disappearance: their dilligence in tracking him down despite having no clues to work with, the extensive effort from the authorities in their search, and how truly miraculous Aron's rescue really was -- one that's even more amazing than what's presented in the movie, astonishingly enough.
- Audio Commentary: Director Danny Boyle is joined on 127 Hours' commentary track by producer Christian Colson and co-writer Simon Beaufoy. The three of them delve into the visual language of the film, particularly as it applies to water and thirst, the set of rules they established that extended to tracking down the exact models of the items Aron had with him eight years ago, and how the limitations of such a deliberately constrictive set were used as advantages. They also occasionally compare and contrast their adaptation with Aron's book, and they also touch on the one moment in the screenplay that Aron asked to be removed. The commentary didn't floor me in quite the same way the other extras on this Blu-ray disc did, but this is still a solid track and a very worthy listen.
- God of Love (19 min.; HD): Luke Matheny's black-and-white short, which just took home an Academy Award, has nothing at all to do with 127 Hours. No, it's a jazzy little story about doe-eyed romance and love darts straight from The Almighty's home office, and it's more than a little bit brilliant. I'm kind of thrilled that this is on here, especially in pristine high definition. Not all that many live-action shorts have made their way to Blu-ray, and I hope this gets to be a trend.
- BD Live: Fox has an annoying habit of holding back extras and presenting them exclusively online, apparently unwilling or unable to figure out anything meaningful to do with BD Live. That's the case here too, although at least this four minute interview with James Franco from the Telluride Film Festival won't be missed by anyone who can't get their Blu-ray players to hop on the Internet. 127 Hours itself doesn't factor into this conversation with theatre/opera director Peter Sellars, instead charting the course of Franco's career and delving into his perception of art and cinema.
127 Hours comes packaged in a glossy cardboard slipcover, and also tucked inside is a digital copy for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices.
The Final Word
One of the year's most remarkable films is lavished with an equally remarkable release on Blu-ray, boasting an extraordinary aural and visual presentation as well as a consistently compelling slate of extras. Highly Recommended.