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Movie review: ‘127 Hours’

There is such a tangible life force pulsing through “127 Hours” that it is almost impossible not to be drawn down into Blue John Canyon alongside its star, James Franco, for the real-life ordeal of Aron Ralston, a solo hiker trapped in a remote area of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park.

Once there, with the hiker’s right arm hopelessly pinned by an 800-pound boulder, director Danny Boyle wrings you out completely with a film so emotionally and intellectually involving that when the horrific last resort finally arrives, it leaves some moviegoers in a faint. And everyone else wondering: Could I possibly do that?

Based on the five days in April 2003 that the 26-year-old outdoorsman found himself “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” as Ralston called his bestselling memoir, this is a classic tale of man versus nature and the extreme measures sometimes necessary to survive. As is the case in stories like these — whether on the peaks of Everest or in the depths of a Chilean mine — it is the face-off against unimaginable odds, the test of the human spirit, as much as the outcome, that provides the intrigue.

Boyle understands that. As he did in his Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” whose hero faced an unrelenting string of soul-destroying challenges, the director again proves a master at balancing escalating tension with just-in-time release. Here the balloon almost, almost, almost pops. The film’s penultimate moment, and the one already generating a public stir for its graphic depiction of the way in which Ralston finally frees himself in a bone-snapping, bloody self-amputation, is only a riveting few minutes and a powerful affirmation of the “less is more” precept.

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In Franco, the filmmaker has the perfect partner in crime. Had the actor slipped along the way, the film would have immediately lost traction since he must spend the bulk of it nearly immobile. In a smart move designed to deal with shooting in the cramped confines of the canyon, and one that paid off, Boyle used two cinematographers — Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with the director on “Slumdog,” and Enrique Chediak ( “Charlie St. Cloud,” “The Good Girl”) — equipped with three types of cameras to get the effect he wanted.

Franco began this very good year at Sundance exploring the provocative soul of beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” a far more intellectual exercise that ranged from smoky nightclubs to courtrooms, then followed as Julie Roberts’ younger lover in “Eat Pray Love,” with a stint on “General Hospital” and an excursion into performance art thrown in just to keep things interesting. In contrast, “127 Hours” is a nearly solitary tour de force as Franco moves through the various emotional and physical states that desperate straits churn up with such a naturalistic ease it gives the film a documentary feel.

It helps that Ralston was an amateur videographer who recorded daily updates on his efforts to escape, his ricocheting emotions and his final wishes. Boyle adopts that as a storytelling device, lending an intimacy to the film that would otherwise have been difficult to achieve. Some of the funniest and most wrenching moments come as Franco plays to that very small screen, leaving us to watch a film within a film and making an already surreal experience even more so.

This life-altering saga starts innocently enough with the hiker taking off on a spur-of-the-moment trip in the Utah desert. In the first of many twists of fate, he doesn’t leave word with anyone about where he is headed, so no one knows where to start looking when they finally figure out he’s probably in trouble.

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Rather than foreshadowing the coming doom, the filmmakers infuse the opening sequence with the heady sense of excitement and risk that define this outdoorsman’s way of embracing life. Using a split-screen effect that evokes a slot machine spin, images of Ralston biking in a beautifully stark desert spin one way, while on either side are shots of jammed football stadiums, marathoners in a starting-line crush, packed subways and crowded city sidewalks. It’s all set to Bill Withers’ exuberant “Lovely Day.” Point made.

Then the fateful hike begins. Boyle soon seeds in one of the central metaphors that will define the film — water, or really life-saving liquid of any sort — with Ralston greedily guzzling his very limited supply. It is here that the filmmaker takes the liberty to weave fiction with fact for dramatic effect. There are deep pools of water for diving in, which Ralston does with Kristi ( Kate Mara) and Megan ( Amber Tamblyn), a couple of hikers he bumps into not long before the accident. Beer and soda being iced down for the party he’s missing have never looked more thirst-quenching; rain, sometimes soft, sometimes in torrents, is never more welcome. By the time we hit the shot of a bottle of Gatorade that was left in the back of Ralston’s truck, it takes everything not to run out of the theater to buy some.

The other metaphor being worked over is humanity itself. For all the time this loner has spent escaping into the wilderness to prove how self-sufficient he is, it is his thoughts of family, friends, lovers, the son he still might one day have, that sustain him. These come in a vivid stream of imagination, set pieces that provide escape from the canyon — for both us and Ralston — when things get too grim. In the end, “127 Hours” is one man’s incredible, unforgettable journey; it took the extraordinary alchemy of Boyle and Franco to also make it ours.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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