127 Hours, Danny Boyle, 95 mins (15)

Danny Boyle's razzle-dazzle storytelling so dissipates the true drama of this story of a man who amputates his own limb, you wouldn't give your right arm to see it

One thing is beyond doubt: Danny Boyle's 127 Hours has a hell of a story to tell.

In 2003, Aron Ralston went for a weekend exploring the canyons of Utah and found himself trapped down a chasm, his arm jammed inextricably under a fallen boulder. After days alone, unable to summon help, Ralston freed himself by amputating his own limb with a penknife. You can have nothing but awe-struck admiration for Ralston, who lived to write an account of his ordeal – although I confess my regard is slightly diminished by his calling the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place. He might as well have gone for A Farewell to Arms.

This tale of solitary confinement followed by amputation could well have given us something like Samuel Beckett with a torture-porn climax. You certainly wouldn't have expected a film quite as exuberant as Danny Boyle has made here. 127 Hours comes on firing from the get-go, with split-screen imagery in vivid colours, showing multitudes at a football match, at Mecca, on the financial trading floors – then dropping in the solitary figure of Ralston, played by James Franco. To booming rock (the score is largely by star Bollywood composer A R Rahman), Ralston drives overnight, then in the morning – kaboom! – hurtles on his bike across the widescreen desert, filming himself on his camcorder as he goes. Striding into canyon country, he meets two young women and initiates them into the exhilarating art of plunging down rock chasms into blue underground pools – the camera plunging headily with them.

When the rock jams his arm, we get a brief, terrible moment of calm realisation as Ralston is, for the first time, stopped in his tracks. Things get serious – but Boyle isn't about to let them get solemn. When Ralston tries to whittle at the boulder, it's a desperately tense, dramatic moment – so why does Boyle need to telegraph the tension with chugging rock guitar?

Overall, the film dissipates suspense with bursts of furious energy, turning a story of solitary entrapment into a three-ring circus of the senses. There's barely a moment that doesn't feature some giddy effect, and many are certainly striking: the camera rockets away from Ralston wedged deep in his gulley, then vaults into the skies to reveal his prison as a tiny fissure in a vast ochre desolation. Playing throughout with extremes of scale, the photography – by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak – offers impossible, dimension-defying close-ups. The camera takes us into the tube of Ralston's drinking bottle as water rushes to his mouth, and later, superfluously, right inside the workings of his camcorder.

There's also a moment of grotesque comedy as Ralston, staring his predicament in the face, stages his own chat show, playing sheepish guest and mocking, castigating host. What could have been an embarrassing routine is smartly written by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, and carried off with aplomb by Franco, who captures Ralston's mix of uncrushable goofiness and self-lacerating anxiety. Throughout the film, Franco conveys a frazzled dignity and vulnerability, giving Ralston sufficient depth so that we're not merely rooting for him as an endurance champion.

But the film doesn't trust in the hard horrifying drama that is Ralston's lonely moment of truth. Boyle treats us to a constant spectacular, often of the thoughts in his hero's troubled head. There are wistful flashbacks to family moments, and an apocalyptic production number in which storm clouds open up over the canyon. There's also a misjudged fantasy in which the camera pelts across the desert and into the back of Ralston's van, coming to rest on a bottle of Gatorade – followed by a montage of soft drink ads because, as we might not have noticed, Ralston's getting a little thirsty. 127 Hours features some extremely striking, often beautiful images. But as a result of all the showmanship, there's barely a moment when we feel real tension – still less, feel as trapped or as panicked as Ralston.

The final horror of amputation is evoked with finesse: you may wince, but you're unlikely to faint (and if you did, it would be from Boyle's judicious use of a dentist's drill sound). Ralston's eventual liberation is utterly triumphant, as signalled by a martial swell of Sigur Ros music; but we never feel we earn the release by truly living through hell with our hero.

You wonder what the film might have been if Boyle had eschewed the dazzle and simply given us a man in a squeeze. Look what the mountaineering documentary Touching the Void did with a similarly extreme situation, and consider last year's compelling minimalist thriller Buried – simply one actor stuck in a coffin.

Instead of an existential drama of anguished endurance, Boyle has made an all-out entertainment: an extreme sports movie about an extreme dude. 127 Hours is so jam-packed with cinema that there's not much room for a film – at least, not the subtler, more psychologically challenging one that Ralston's unimaginably troubling, improbably positive story deserves.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney watches troubled romance, US indie style, in Blue Valentine

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
    Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

    Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

    They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
    The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

    20 best days out for the summer holidays

    From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
    Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

    All the wood’s a stage

    Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
    Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

    Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

    Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
    Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

    Self-preservation society

    Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
    Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

    Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

    We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor