Though real life stories of "man versus nature" have provided filmmakers with creative fodder since the 1930s, what makes the story of Aron Ralston distinct from that of, say, Christopher McCandless—which provided the basis for the 1996 book and 2007 film Into the Wild—is that it more closely resembles the plot of a contemporary horror film than that of an adventure drama: while canyoneering in Utah, Ralston's right arm was crushed and pinned against a canyon wall by a dislodged boulder and, after a five day struggle to free himself by more conventional means, he was forced to amputate the lower part of his forearm with a dull knife. And for all the earthy charm James Franco brings to the depiction of his character, Ralston is far from an "everyman": he is a seasoned mountaineer who, due to his training and experience, was perhaps one of the few people in the world who could have survived such a catastrophic accident. In fact, part of the appeal of Danny Boyle's biopic, 127 Hours, is that the average viewer will never really be able to relate all that well to Ralston, perhaps concluding at some point while watching the film that he or she would not have survived such an ordeal and could not have brought him- or herself to make Ralston's sacrifice: that Ralston is not a regular human being, but an exceptional one, and would not be alive today if he were not.
But it is this choice on the part of Boyle and company, to quite literally pictorialize Ralston's unconscious world through a combination of split-screens within split-screens, pop culture allusions, dizzyingly hyperkinetic montages, frighteningly vivid dream sequences and hallucinations, that will prove to be divisive and perhaps even scorned. Even the film's (mercifully brief, yet every bit as horrible as you imagined) re-enactment of Ralston's self-amputation is played as an homage to the popular board game "Operation," complete with surreal buzzing noises. This might be regarded by many viewers as poor taste on the part of the filmmakers, but isn't it also possible that the absurd comparison might have crossed Ralston's mind at the time, and maybe even helped him through the ordeal? After all, it would have been his only previous experience with surgical procedure.
Given that 127 Hours was always going to be a film with one character, it required, for the purposes of consistently engaging the viewer's interest, both an inventive narrative technique and a consummate lead actor, the latter of which it definitely delivered: James Franco's performance is astonishingly rich and textured, conveying, when necessary, the character's indomitable intelligence, stubborn resolve and childlike frailty. But, regardless of whether the filmmakers have pushed their technique a little too far, at times even veering off onto the unsure terrain of sentimentality—and not just any kind of sentimentality but "Danny Boyle-brand" high-octane surreal sentimentality—or whether their devices are a bit too clunky and literal, they deserve commendation for their innovative take on the familiar format of the natural disaster drama. And though 127 Hours' denouement does seem a bit self-consciously exalting, as though implemented to ensure the film's place in the annals of classic "weepy guy movies," you'll be hard pressed not to give in a little.