People give Michael Bay a lot of shit. They say he’s too flashy with his camera; he embellishes scenes with unnecessary lens flares and Fincher-esque diversions into bizarre points-of-view (a bomb dropping, a car becoming a robot); mostly, Bay’s movies are criticized for being effects spectacles devoid of character, meaning or resonance. Well, if Danny Boyle’s recent career choices are any indication, the man who gave us Bad Boys II and three (!) Transformers films may be on the verge of writing a Best Director acceptance speech (or at least a “Nice to be Nominated” one). I saw the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours yesterday, and found it to be as tiresome and pointless as any summer blockbuster of the last five years. Once again, I seem to be one of ten people on the planet with this opinion (as happened with Boyle’s 2008 Best-Picture-winner, Slumdog Millionaire). But believe it or not, I don’t mean to be contrarian; I’m baffled by the hype and praise surrounding this movie. The actors are fine, but the incoherent story and frenetic camerawork suggest a filmmaker desperate to turn an anecdote into a movie—the art-house equivalent of bringing a Saturday Night Live sketch to the big screen.
In 2003, engineer/weekend warrior Aron Ralston got trapped under a giant rock while canyoneering in Utah. He sat pinned for five days, unable to extricate his hand and forearm. After running out of water, and realizing that no one would find him before it was too late, he cut off his own arm using a dull knife and climbed out. Ralston later wrote a book called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (I would’ve gone with Hand Canyon, myself), which Boyle and co-screenwriter Simon Beaufoy turned into this movie.
I must admit some prejudice here and cop to the fact that the trailers for 127 Hours annoyed me. They showed James Franco as Ralston biking, climbing and diving in caves and canyons with an obnoxious “Whoa, dude” disposition that painted him as a cartoon character rather than someone who cared at all about consequences. I don’t doubt that extreme go-getters like Ralston exist; I’m just not sure why I should care when they die or get crippled—especially if, like Aron, they are so confident of their invincibility that they do stupid things like leave extra water bottles in the truck miles away and don’t bother telling anyone where they’re going or for how long.
So, going in to the movie, I expected Boyle, Beaufoy and Franco to teach me a few things. The only lesson I learned is that while every story may have a hook, not every story is worth making into a movie. All I’ve left out of the premise and plot is that Aron meets a couple of climbers in the hours preceding his fall. Played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, they’re cute, adventuresome girls who agree to let Ralston show them an awesome underground pool and then invite him to a party the following night. They don’t figure into the rest of the movie, except to highlight Ralston’s isolation later on in flashbacks and in footage he shot of their playing around (during which one of the girls says that they’re concerned about him, and he’ll never get a girlfriend if he keeps on being such a freak; it may have been a joke, but it’s the film’s most honest point).
Sandwiched between twelve minutes of setup and ten minutes at the end (after he escapes) is over an hour of a guy sitting under a rock. He chips away at it with his knife; he makes video diaries of his struggle, including an early attempt to cut off his arm; he depletes his water and ends up drinking his own piss. I perked up when Ralston began having flashbacks. “Oh, good,” I thought, “we’re not just going to sit in this hole for an hour, the movie will mostly be flashbacks explaining why Aron Ralston is such an idiot. So maybe I’ll care, by the end, whether he lives or dies.” No such luck. There are a lot of flashbacks in 127 Hours, but they don’t—collectively or individually—paint any kind of picture that would make sense outside of the person having them.
We see Ralston and his girlfriend, Rana (Clemence Poesy), caress each other in one moment, and then fight/break up in another (the break-up happens during a packed basketball game, and I found it odd that Rana’s last words to Ralston were just kind of spoken in anger rather than yelled at the top of her lungs—as is necessary at a major sporting event whether you’re arguing or just ordering a fucking hot dog). We also see Ralston and his dad (Treat Williams) sitting atop the Utah canyons when the climber was just a boy; and later with the whole family as a teenage Ralston uses his family’s new 1980s video camera to capture his sister (Bailee Michelle Johnson) playing piano. In fairness, this scene inadvertently gives us insight into Ralston’s cluelessness, as we see dear old dad ask, “Now, he records something over there, and we can watch it on the TV over here? Wow!” I know it was the ’80s and home video technology was rather new, but that level of ignorance in a man who’d ostensibly grown up watching television and movies is a bit much to accept. Or maybe he was raised a Luddite; I don’t know. The film doesn’t care to tell me, opening the floodgates of speculation.
Speaking of floodgates, back in the crevice, Ralston gets caught in a storm. At first he’s scared by the thunder and gathering clouds, but this turns to relief as he refills his water bottle. The terror returns as he realizes that the water is filling up the space in which he’s trapped. He’s soon completely submerged, and I wondered how the hell he’d get out of this mess. Boyle solves the problem by taking us into another flashback and bringing us back out after all the water has washed away and Ralston is just dry and stuck again. Boyle has messed around with the way time works before, asking us to believe that it can stop or speed up or become altogether irrelevant, as he did in the movie Sunshine. But that movie had the excuse of being set inside a space station hurtling into the sun; here, he just dismisses any questions the audience might have about how Ralston survived or how long he was submerged. Classy.
On a related note, why didn’t Canon make a bazillion dollars off their amazing video camera that features not only perfect playback after being submerged in a flood, but also special weights at the base that keep it from being swept away?
I guess this brings us to the movie’s famous arm-cutting scene. If you’ve never seen Martyrs or any of the Saw movies then, sure, this part may make you a bit squeamish, but it’s not as graphic as the hype may have led you to believe. Or maybe it is that graphic, and I just couldn’t make out the alleged nausea-inducing gore through all the hyperactive camera moves and cutaways and cutbacks. All I know is that this is the only interesting scene in the movie, and that has a lot to do with the Based on a True Story problem that clues the audience into the fact that the main character—no matter how many floods or ants or lizards he encounters—will, in the end, be just fine; meaning that the fake drama leading up to the arm-cutting scene is merely fluff buried under technique.
This, besides the really uninteresting story, is 127 Hours ’ major flaw. Boyle fetishizes the whiz-bang technology at his disposal, copying the aesthetic of early David Fincher, early Darren Aronofsky, and modern Neveldine/Taylor (who made the Crank films), without asking himself whether or not that aesthetic applies to the story he’s trying to tell. With Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream and Crank, the amped-up shots, kooky transitions and bizarre sound effects contributed to the audience’s understanding of their characters’ psychotic, drugged-out states. The key is that—in most cases—the directors knew when to tone down the silliness to balance out the frenzy with drama. 127 Hours is one note, all the way through, and it plays less like an adventurer facing down death at a glacier’s pace than an aloof MTV reality star recording absolutely everything while overdosing on Mountain Dew.
It’s true that the flashbacks towards the end take on a more somber tack; as Ralston’s mind and body break down, he sees a young version of himself and his family and friends sitting on couches in a gold-lit living room. But without the benefit of a backstory, these people—most of whom we’ve never seen before—might as well be grips posing for a picture at the film’s wrap party.
All of this leads to the big question, which is this: If Aron Ralston had not lost his arm, had not spent five days in a hole under a rock; had he simply broken a few fingers and crawled right out, would that have made this story interesting enough for a movie? If your answer is “yes”, then please watch and enjoy 127 Hours. If your answer is “no”, then please watch 127 Hours and consider how much of this film could have been trimmed out; ask yourself if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should bestow its highest honor on a well-performed, but flashy, glorified Travel Channel segment in an “Extreme Adventures” program. Regardless, I don’t want to hear any more carping about how Michael Bay creates overblown wastes of time when one of his unofficial protégés is named a contender for having produced the same kind of vacuous drivel.
[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 01/30/11.]