Aron Ralston (James Franco) thinks that he’s superhuman. He creates situations designed to inflate his ego. Case-in-point, he surrounds himself with his family and friends but consciously decides not to notify them when he’s about to leave society and spend the weekend hiking in Utah. He’s lying to himself, telling himself that the world is suffocating him, when actually he’s the one who pulled people in so close. And in Utah he feels like Superman, leaping from rock to rock, flying faster than a speeding bullet, taping the whole thing, of course, so he can show it off to the world when he makes his triumphant return.
That’s Aron at the beginning of the movie. We all know how his situation is going to change: A boulder falls and traps Aron. Before the incident, shots of Aron using his arm to steady himself hang over your head like a guillotine. And after the boulder falls, every time the camera tilts down to his trapped right arm, you cringe a little. The arm is pinched at the elbow, and the image stays in your head. You realize that it’s the perfect picture of an arm. It’s smooth and toned but not bulging. Little veins pop up every now and then. But it’s trapped in a horrifying and perfect harmony. He can’t pull it out as long as the rock pushes on it, and the rock won’t budge as long as his arm supports it.
Aron values his arm, as any person would when first thrown into his situation. He tugs and twists, and he tries to chip away at the boulder. He even fashions a pulley that goes nowhere. All the while he grows more and more dehydrated, and maybe it’s just the dried-up delirium talking, but when he sees that his forearm is purple and dead, Aron wonders if there’s a point to holding onto the thing. You squirm and yell, “No! There must be another way.” But Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy’s script has played a trick on you. You’re caught aggrandizing the dead arm in the same way that Aron pumped up his ego. Except now even Aron has figured out that he can’t do everything by himself. He has to cut off the arm and find help.
And so the story is about ceding self-control (but never individuality) and embracing those around you. Boyle and his cinematographers use split-screens and blaring music to stay tied tight to every angle of Aron’s emotions as he moves from confident to doubting to triumphant. The direction is appropriately ephemeral and moving, as is Franco’s performance. “127 Hours” is basically a one-man show—there is even a laugh-track thrown in for good measure—and Franco owns the stage. He’s hilarious when he’s supposed to be, and he’s just humble and joyful enough at the end to make you forgive the guy for not leaving a note before going on the hike.