Danny Boyle's true-life depiction of Aron Ralston's escape from being trapped in Utah's Blue John Canyon is no more satisfying than the horror film Saw. James Franco delivers a powerful performance given the material. It's just that sadly the material isn't much.
James Franco plays Aron Ralston, who in April 2003 went hiking in a large canyon and became stuck in a thin crevice when he slipped on a loose boulder and his right arm got caught between the crevice's wall and the boulder itself, which he couldn't move. He was trapped in that crevice for five days with no food and little water, and no one to help him. His only means of getting out was eventually to cut off his own right arm.
Even with that knowledge prior to entering the theater, I still felt for the character through all of the emotional beats. First, there's fear. Then, there's anger. Then, there's sadness, and Franco is a great enough actor that he's able to convey those emotional beats and carry the audience through it, but I feel as though any competent actor in that age-range could have pulled if off. I'm not sure if I was responding necessarily to Franco or the mere gravity of Ralston's situation.
Clearly, the situation is intense. You'd have to be a boulder yourself not to feel the pain, the panic, the discomfort and the sheer mortality that Ralston feels, but that's all. There's nothing else to be gained or learned here. I suppose it stands as a testament of endurance and the human spirit to stay alive.
All that is fine, but it's far less exciting than say James Wan's Saw (2004). Both movies are about a man locked in a life-and-death predicament and both movies end with that man having to amputate an apendage in order to escape. While Wan relies on horror movie conventions, Boyle relies on arthouse ones. Basically Wan works to make his movie look and feel ugly, while Boyle works to make his look and feel beautiful, or else inspirational.
Boyle's camera at first is either embracing vast aerials of the canyon, low angles of Ralston, or else point-of-view shots as we trek along with him. When he can, Boyle emphasizes nature, a lowly ant sharing in Ralston's struggles or a hawk on high circling like a god. Boyle weaves in and out of the canyon, sweeping us up in the beauty of curved rocks and at times he focuses attention on the light of the sun as it penetrates the crevice and has its warmth hug the audience as well as Ralston.
Boyle also passes the time with snappy montages like one set to Bill Withers' "Lovely Day." No doubt, Boyle succeeds in making this movie interesting to watch, or as interesting as you can make a movie about a man stuck in one place. However, unlike Saw, Boyle doesn't offer anything else. It's admirable that he wanted to make this movie about a man trapped and thus the audience trapped in one place. It brings to mind Tom Hanks in Castaway or most recently Ryan Reynolds in Buried.
Boyle also does a great job of blending memory with reality and fantasy in ways that make the audience understand the terrorizing time had in that crevice. Boyle does this a couple of times, and I found the flood scene to be the one and only true compelling use of this. All the rest seemed obvious and boring.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and disturbing content including bloody images.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 34 mins.