There’s a problem with yes or no questions. They look simple. They’re meant to be simple. There are, after all, only two answers, diametrically opposed, clearly defined. And yet the truth of the matter is they don’t always work out that way, often because of a subjective element. “Is 127 Hours a good movie?” is a yes or no question that demands elaboration. “Does Danny Boyle do a good job?” and “Is James Franco’s performance good?” naturally spring to mind after the first question, and they’re relatively easy questions to tackle. But then there’s the question “Does 127 Hours have an interesting story?” And there things get a little murkier.
127 Hours is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who found himself trapped in a canyon by a boulder that pinned his arm. Having told nobody where he was going, he realizes that nobody is going to report him missing and that his only chance for survival is to get himself out somehow. Franco plays Ralston, and although there are moments of other characters — in flashbacks and establishing shots — this is essentially a one-actor film. For most of the film, Ralston is alone, and so it is up to Franco to carry the film. Franco’s performance covers a wide range of emotions as Ralston evaluates his situation, fights panic, tries to keep his spirits up, tries to get loose, records messages for his family on his camcorder, and occasionally hallucinates. In all scenes, Franco is completely believable; it’s very easy to buy into the idea that he really is pinned by the boulder.
Similarly, Boyle does an skillful job of film-making within limited constraints. He makes use of different framing shots and techniques to help keep the film visually interesting despite it being essentially a one-setting, one-character movie. Flashbacks of Ralton’s life with family and friends are also inserted here and there in logical places to help break up the monotony of watching Ralston struggle against the rock.
The problem is… well, as I said “to help break up the monotony”. It’s a necessary thing and it’s not entirely successful. I am not diminishing what the real-life Ralston went through; that would be terrifying, and what he had to do to survive would traumatize many people for life. But there’s a reason why similar scenes in movies are typically just scenes — stretching it out to a full-length film, even one only 90 minutes in length, is a difficult storytelling task. Most of Ralston’s struggles must necessarily be fruitless; the defining trait of being stuck is that the situation doesn’t change, after all. But that means we’re watching nearly 90 minutes of futility. There can be no small triumphs along the way to cheer for, and there isn’t even much room for character development, as the nature of his mistake is evident to both audience and character from the very beginning. (Well, mostly evident. The epilogue notes that real-life Ralston now leaves a note when he goes hiking; personally, I have to wonder why he apparently still goes hiking alone. Common sense says to bring a buddy, and while leaving a note may have shaved a day or two off of his ordeal, having a friend with him could have cut it down to only a few hours total. But I digress; my main concern is with the movie itself.)
At any rate, what is an interesting story to read an article about becomes a somewhat monotonous story to watch. A viewer could walk out and walk back in and not feel as if they’ve missed a thing. The flashbacks and hallucinations help break it up a bit, but only a little bit — and frankly, the hallucinations and daydreams of managing to free himself got old pretty quickly.
So to answer the question “is the story interesting?”, I have to say “Yes… but not enough to last the whole film.”