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127 Hours & The Bog People Moment

Movie Review: 127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring James Franco.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers!

If you’ve heard anything about 127 Hours, then you know it’s not like most other movies. Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who went for a hike one day in the canyons of Utah and came back minus his right arm, 127 Hours is basically a one-man show: there are other actors in the film (including Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Clémence Poésy), but it’s James Franco as Ralston who fills most of the screentime. Franco does a great job of keeping the movie interesting with no one but his character’s video camera to play off of for large chunks of time.

The most talked-about part of the movie is no doubt the scene in which Ralston finally decides to amputate his own arm in order to escape. I heard those Exorcist-type rumours about people fainting because the scene was so graphic; however, I didn’t have a problem with it. Oh, it was definitely graphic, but unless you have a very low tolerance for gore it shouldn’t scar you for life. By the time he started to cut, I was almost too impressed by the determination he showed to overcome the many difficulties of his situation to be grossed out.  To me, the most difficult scene to watch was one in which Ralston becomes overwhelmed by the sound of his own rapidly beating heart, which the audience also hears. The sound really helped to create the sense of claustrophobia and panic Ralston must have felt at that moment.

Although I didn’t care for Slumdog Millionaire, I have liked just about every other Danny Boyle movie I’ve seen. Slumdog was described by a lot of reviewers as “kinetic,” and the bulk of 127 Hours is definitely not that. It is largely stationary, as of course the main character spends almost the entire movie completely immobilized. But we also see glimpses of Ralston’s inner life — the hallucinations and memories that keep him going while he’s trapped — so it doesn’t end up being just an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave. Having said that, Franco is engaging enough that an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave would probably have been quite entertaining in this case.

Of the other Danny Boyle films I’ve seen, 127 Hours shares the most in common with The Beach, which was in my opinion a very underrated movie. It’s also about a young man who goes into nature expecting something idyllic and finds something very frightening instead. One other movie that seems like an obvious point of comparison is 2007’s Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn. Into the Wild was also based on a true story: that of Chris McCandless (played in the movie by Emile Hirsch), who gave up on civilization to go live in the wilds of Alaska, took almost no food or supplies with him, and — unsurprisingly — ended up dying of starvation. I was not a fan of Into the Wild. I felt the movie portrayed McCandless’ foolishness as admirable, turning someone who was essentially kind of an idiot into a hero. 127 Hours takes the opposite approach, making a big deal out of the fact that Ralston could have avoided his entire situation had he simply told someone where he was going. The movie even includes a funny scene in which Ralston conducts a fake interview with himself and mocks the series of idiotic decisions that led him to his predicament. To me, this made Ralston a much more sympathetic figure than McCandless could have been.

The Bog People Moment

You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie or a TV show, and something happens that makes you think of something else completely unrelated? Then the connection makes you laugh, and the thing  you’re watching suddenly becomes hilarious, even if it’s in fact very, very serious. I call this the “Bog People Moment,” after an incident that occurred when I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. There’s a scene early in that movie where Frodo and Sam pass through the Dead Marshes, and Frodo sees the bodies of dead warriors just under the surface of the marsh. When I saw the movie, the Museum of Civilization was heavily advertising and exhibit called “The Mysterious Bog People,” which featured, among other things, the bodies of ancient people which had been preserved in bogs. When Frodo saw the bodies, I turned to my friend and said “Bog people!” And from that moment on I could not take the movie seriously.

127 Hours also featured such a moment at the very end, when text on screen presented an epilogue telling us how Aron Ralston’s life changed after his accident. One change: now when he goes out climbing, he always leaves a note. I could not help thinking of Arrested Development and J. Walter Weatherman, the one-armed man George Bluth liked to use to scare various lessons into his children by suggesting that their failure to do certain things had caused this man to lose his arm. One such lesson? “And that‘s why you always leave a note!” I always thought George Sr. was exaggerating with this stuff. Now I know better.

While I do feel like a horrible, insensitive person for thinking this way about a very serious thing that actually happened to someone, I’m fairly sure any Arrested Development fan would have had the same thought — completely involuntarily, too. That’s the insidious nature of the Bog People Moment: you can’t help thinking it and once you’ve thought it, it can’t be unthought.