127 Hours isn’t a great movie and it isn’t a terrible movie. More than anything else, it leaves me with one question for director Danny Boyle: was the point of this to tell us a story, or to have us marvel at your storytelling ability? Because I suspect it was the latter. Those motives can be related, but they’re distinct. It’s seeking to entertain vs. seeking approval. For a comedian, it’s the difference between a bit that gets laughs and a bit that gets applause. 127 Hours is not a bad movie, but it’s most definitely an applause movie.
Boyle making a film like 127 Hours is a lot like that time Dave Chappelle did comedy for seven hours straight. Is it incredible that Dave Chappelle could do stand up for seven straight hours? Yes. Could a lesser comedian pull off something like that? Probably not. But does that make a seven-hour comedy show a good idea? Fuuuuuu*k no. There are actually multiple reasons people don’t do seven-hour comedy shows, and the biggest one is that no one wants to watch comedy for seven hours straight. We’ll stick with the 90-minute show, thanks. There comes a point at which you’re not choosing a project because the project is good, but because of how good that project will make you look if you pull it off. It’s pure d*ck measuring, and that’s what 127 Hours is.
Put it this way: Do you think Danny Boyle is a great filmmaker? Do you think James Franco is a great actor? Assuming you answered yes (and I would), put both of those questions completely out of your mind, and now ask yourself a third question: would you like to watch a film that consists of a single character trapped in a canyon for more than an hour, in which you already know both the method and the outcome? Unless you’re a liar or you hate yourself, the answer is NO. He cuts his arm off, he gets out, the end. It’s an awesome story. An awesome story to hear, that is. I don’t really need to see the part where he summons his inner strength, where he wishes he’d brought a sharper knife, where he day dreams about his childhood, where he wonders what his sister is doing, where he interviews himself on an imaginary talk show, etc., etc., etc.
That Franco gives a great performance and Boyle manages to make this reasonably tolerable to sit through doesn’t change the fact that a film about Aron Ralston’s time trapped in a Utah cave is not, under any circumstances, worth more than 30 or 40 minutes of screen time. Hey, what did he do before he fell in a cave? What about after, once cutting his arm off had made him an international celebrity? That could’ve been interesting. Once you limit it to just the part where he was trapped in a canyon, I don’t care how many flashbacks, dream sequences, split screens, time-lapse photography, and visual metaphors involving planes you throw at it, YOU ARE STRETCHING. JUST CUT HIS F*CKING ARM OFF ALREADY.
So why does everyone love this film so much? As Roger Ebert (who I love, even if we disagree) writes, “127 Hours’ is like an exercise in conquering the unfilmable.”
Exactly, it’s an exercise. It’s an exercise in filmmaking. And what’s the root meaning of an “exercise”? It’s something that you do to make you better that we don’t particular need to watch. That’s the difference between an “exercise” and a “performance.” Likewise, 127 Hours isn’t so much a story as it is a collection of techniques.
I hate to sound like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park (okay, that’s a lie), but it seems like everyone involved spent a lot of time figuring out how this could be done, and none wondering whether it should be. What’s the theme? And if you say “an inspiring tale of hope” or “a triumph of the human spirit,” I’m going to knee you in the testicles. The theme is “watch Danny Boyle tackle this really difficult project!”
I resent having to feed his ego with a good review when that’s really the only point of this project in the first place. Wait, that’s wrong. Impressive or not, it’s just wasn’t that much fun to watch. It was okay.
So congrats, Danny Boyle, you pulled it off. I don’t question your talent, just the payoff. Your tea tastes surprisingly good plain, but next time, don’t be afraid to spice it up with some characters, an unpredictable plot, hell who knows, maybe even a story.