The opening scenes of 127 Hours suggest there must be a chemical that makes us different from the animals. The film then spends the next 90 minutes proving that perhaps the differences aren't so profound after all, while hammering home a message that's somehow still infused with humanity and empathy. A visceral experience, a razor blade held close to your neck, there's danger in the way director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) tells the tale of hiker Aron Ralston (played by James Franco). In lesser hands this would have been sappy; if not for the prodigious gifts Boyle possesses in terms of pacing, comedy, and music infusion, we could have been headed down the path to melodrama. But we don't ever get there, and the arresting visual fireworks on-screen will bring you as close to crying, "Yeeeeeeeoooooow!" as you'll get in the theater this year. And there's beauty, too -- true beauty, the kind you rarely see in our "movies made by proxy" society.
Don't read another word about the true story the film is based upon and you'll be far better off. This is a movie you want to see without knowing context or history, it's a story you shouldn't let your friends spoil. Know only that Ralston heads out for a day of mountain biking and hiking, whereupon he meets Kristi and Megan (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), before finally breaking off on his own for some real adventures. This initial portion of the film feels much like The Beach, the sheer innocence and joy of being a human put on full display, and Mara and Tamblyn do well in their limited screen time.
Does 127 Hours then proceed to get dark? Indeed it does. Tonally, the film swings wild, but Franco's strangulating hold on the material keeps you locked in. His battle is our battle, his little defeats attaining the vital significance of war clashes. It's here where Boyle shows off his mastery of the medium: like an anesthesiologist, he keeps pulling you back toward the light right when he's just about to lose you.
There are very few films that highlight the contradictory nature of humanity, that fierce independence that's only permitted because of the overall benevolence of the structure as a whole. We're able to attempt art because our primary needs are taken care of, we're able to challenge ourselves physically because of the improvements in tools, techniques, and communications. Early man migrated to find better resources and shelter, extreme sports and "pushing yourself to the limit" are a thoroughly modern concept. As such, Boyle's 127 Hours comes off as a dynamic rendering of the concept of "now" -- it's a veritable treatise for the times we find ourselves in.
I rarely find myself this effusive about a film -- perhaps a half dozen times a year -- because so many are made with a template and niche marketing firmly in mind. Perhaps that's overly cynical, and maybe that's why I need Danny Boyle and James Franco in my life. To guide me back, show off the better parts of people and community, the bravery, the soul, the heart, those little things that make us human, that slight chemical difference that makes us help and hurt, drives us to danger, and lights the way home, long after darkness has fallen.