It happened almost eight years ago, but anyone who's heard the story of Aron Ralston and his horrific ordeal in the desolate canyons of Utah remembers it. And how could we not? While hiking solo in Canyonlands National Park on a bright spring day in 2003, the young, experienced, but still reckless Ralston lost his footing while traversing a narrow slip, and in the ensuing fall found his arm wedged between a dislodged boulder and the canyon wall. Without any means of communication (no cell phone coverage) or ability to send distress signals, Ralston was forced to use his wits to try and extricate himself and survive. Days of futile attempts, dwindling food and water, and sheer desperation ultimately led him to cut off his own arm, so he could escape from the canyon and seek help. His story moved and awed millions, who admired not only his fierce will to live, but also his courage and ingenuity. To most of us, self-mutilation is an unfathomable concept - no matter how extreme the circumstance - which makes Ralston's tale all the more grisly and fascinating.
Yet the fact that we know the story doesn't make Danny Boyle's adaptation of it any less riveting. '127 Hours,' which received well-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (James Franco), is a stimulating, inventively filmed, and inspiring (in the best sense of that word) chronicle of Ralston's incredible odyssey. With fervor, humor, and warmth, Boyle presents this fantastic survival yarn in a largely straightforward manner, presenting his subject as a typical man in an extraordinary situation faced with devastating choices. No bias or pathos creeps into this treatment. It's a celebration of life, plain and simple, and all the unique elements that make up a single human being. In between efforts to free himself, Aron (Franco) ruminates, much like a prisoner on death row, about his existence - the character traits that indirectly led him to his entrapment, his regrets, his fantasies of the future - and it's these episodes that lend essential texture and weight to the movie.
From India's teeming atmosphere and the epic canvas of 'Slumdog Millionaire,' Boyle takes a 180-degree turn, downscaling to an intimate, often claustrophobic portrait of a single individual. One might assume such a limited focus, no matter how intriguing the situation or compelling the personality, could become tiresome over time, but Boyle injects such vitality into the presentation, we never feel confined or impatient. During the film's early stages, we feel Aron's youthful energy, brash confidence, and air of invincibility, then later come to respect his resolve, resourcefulness, and keen sense of the dire nature of his predicament. Flashbacks, reveries, and the video recording of his torment as it transpires provide an essential window into his psyche in both an emotionally affecting and visually stimulating manner.
Of course, without a sterling performance at its center, '127 Hours' would never achieve the necessary degree of impact to woo and impress audiences. The movie is practically a one-man show, and though we might not initially believe lanky Franco has the muscles to carry it, he quickly squelches any doubts. Whether ruminating on his plight, expressing regrets, or intently toiling to free himself, Franco exudes a refreshing naturalness that immediately draws us into the film and keeps us right there with him through every obstacle he faces. With few other actors to play off, one might expect Franco to overcompensate by ramping up his own work to a higher pitch, but he resists the temptation, and his restraint results in a more resonant, full-bodied portrayal.
Much has been made of the pivotal scene in which Aron, in a last ditch effort to beat back death, cuts off his arm in order to escape the canyon. It's a gruesome few moments, to be sure, but not so graphic that it should provoke more than a bit of squeamishness or prevent anyone from viewing this fine film, which celebrates the human spirit far more than it depicts the dismembering of a limb. Aron Ralston may not have set out on that May day in 2003 to teach us anything, but he ended up a poster boy for a lot of life lessons. Aside from the obvious - don't hike in the wilderness alone, but if you do, leave a detailed itinerary with those you love and trust - we receive loud and clear an oft-told message that's well worth repeating yet again...that the mind, heart, and soul are much more important components of a human being than the body.
'127 Hours' tells a simple yet amazing story, but tells it with grace and meaning. Though ultimately we may remember Ralston himself more than the filmed treatment of his experience, this portrait of courage and against-all-odds perseverance is as finely etched and awe-inspiring as the colorful cliffs, canyons, and narrow slips of Utah.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
A slipcase encloses '127 Hours,' which comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. The two-disc set includes both a 50GB dual-layered Blu-ray disc, which houses the movie and all the supplements, as well as a digital copy disc for portable player transfer. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and primary audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion, a digital copy promo and a quartet of trailers precede the full motion menu with music.
'127 Hours' takes place in one of our country's most scenic and unspoiled areas, and Fox's superior 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer maximizes the beauty of Utah's sweeping vistas, dramatic landscapes, and colorful rock formations, while maintaining a natural, rugged feel. Boyle's style, employing fast-motion photography, split screens, and varying film stocks, presents a unique set of challenges, yet the image remains surprisingly clear and crisp throughout. An occasional bit of fuzziness or slightly blurred pan creeps in now and then, but never disrupts the immersive feel of this transfer. The amount of grain flucuates, depending on Boyle's choice of camera, but even low-rez shots from handheld devices exhibit well-defined lines. Contrast is also quite good, and the varying hues of red and orange that comprise the barren terrain and towering monoliths are lush and distinct.
Sharp details really catch the eye, from the nooks and crannies of the rocks to fine sand granules on the ground, and extreme close-ups of such items as keys, a camera, and water droplets possess marvelous clarity and dimension. Background elements are equally vivid, and shadow delineation is strong, too. Black levels are appropriately deep, and bright sequences never look washed out.
Digital noise, banding, and edge enhancement are all absent, and no incidents of crush obscure any picture elements. This is a top-level effort from Fox, one that immerses us in the intimate, claustrophobic atmosphere where this inspiring tale of survival plays out.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track matches the video in terms of quality, and really ramps up the film's excitement quotient. Though it's not a showy track per se, the sound field brims with detail and clarity, allowing subtleties to shine and balancing big elements well. During the film's early stages when Boyle employs a trio of split screens, three distinct channels of audio across the front speakers correspond to the images. The striking effect really draws us into each strip and creates a fluid and engaging whole.
The soundtrack tunes are powerfully presented as well, supplying a potent surround feel laced with hearty bass accents. Wide dynamic range allows high-end tones plenty of leeway, while lows possess solid weight, and no distortion breaks up the mix. Even delicate sounds, such as an ant crawling across a knife blade, come through with clarity and nuance. Dialogue isn't a driving force in the film, but it's always clear, comprehendible, and well prioritized, and the music score nicely fills the room.
The strong audio really enhances the experience, making Ralston's ordeal that much more immediate and involving.
Only a couple of extras are common to both the Blu-ray and DVD; the rest are high-def exclusives (see below).
'127 Hours' tells an inspiring, exciting, and somewhat grisly story of survival with vigor and heart, and rightfully earns its place among the best movies of 2010. Director and co-writer Danny Boyle follows up 'Slumdog Millionaire' with another affecting, optimistic film, and actor James Franco gives by far the best performance of his young career. Excellent video and audio quality and a solid spate of supplements enhance the value of this disc and make it easy to heartily recommend.