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Claustrophobic film is on the rise. Rodrigo Cortes’s Iraq film Buried (2010) was released to surprising acclaim last year. A trailer for Sanctum (2010), the forthcoming James Cameron-produced underwater cave-exploration adventure, precedes 127 Hours: Danny Boyle’s first feature since Slumdog Millionaire (2008). The same motif of entrapment stemming from lone attempts at glory fills much of Boyle’s work. The results are shown in Shallow Grave (1994), Salim’s demise in Slumdog, and Richard’s attempts to outfox Sal in The Beach (2000). In some ways, the surreal realities of Trainspotting (1996) and 28 Days Later… (2002) turn this on its head, with the character needing to escape, towards a civilised community.
However, it isn’t the setting so much that’s the appeal with this theme of being trapped in small spaces, but more the character’s coping with the event. Aron Ralston (James Franco) is an adventurer. Fearless, enthusiastic and resourceful, it seems that he doesn’t need anyone – it’s this that becomes the premise for what’s to come. How far does being a loner, in spite of your own resourcefulness, really get you? It’s difficult not to draw reference to the political climate. A glimpse of Ralston’s boss’s t-shirt tells us “They can’t lay us off if they can’t find us”. Boyle himself has maintained lifelong Labour sympathies, which can account for the focus on community (or the lack of it) that drives the film. In a life or death situation, Ralston comes to realise that resourcefulness and will might prevail, but that individualism landed him there. ‘Checking in’ now and then might have avoided the whole fiasco.
This is typical Boyle fare from the outset, exhibiting an MTV-style montage of soda, beer, and fast-food. It works as a kind of visual “Choose life…” The gore (for which a fair amount of the audience are here primarily to see) is near-meticulous in it’s attempts to qualify this as surgery: the camera constantly returning the severing of the nerve. These fast paced cuts of close-up, which include a number of unnecessary microscopic scenes of water, perspiration, urine leaving their points of origin, recall to some extent moments of terror in 28 Days Later. It’s visceral soundtrack (scored by A.R. Rahman of Slumdog) and (akin to Cillian Murphy’s desperate hero) Franco’s intensity supports this. Not short of new, more technically demanding ways to visually show the vastness of middle-American desert, Boyle’s never been one for allowing his audience time to contemplate – this is what distinguishes Sean Penn’s understandably compared, but superior, Into the Wild (2007).
What Slumdog offered the viewer in terms of a rarely transmitted, transcultural showpiece, was marred slightly with cliché. High-octane throughout, 127 Hours amalgamation of contemporary media phenomenons, while subtle in its assessment of the Western sociopolitical landscape, doesn’t feel quite so important. Franco will quite rightly earn praise to add to his growing repertoire for his portrayal of the all-American wanderer. Boyle on the other hand – following a church floor covered with the walking-dead, the brutal blinding of a slum child, and now a severed limb left somewhere in the Utah desert – continues to struggle to reach the affect of Trainspotting.