Monday, March 14, 2011

127 Hours -- forced reflections on life and survival

Director: Danny Boyle, 2010. (R)

127 hours is just over five days, that's a Monday through Friday work-week. Most of us go through this much time week in, week out without giving much thought to the deeper impact or value of our lives. We are too busy with the mundane. But if we were set down in one place for this long on our own, forced to focus on our mortality it could be a cathartic experience. Such was the case for Aron Ralston.

Based on the true story of outdoor adventurer Aron Ralston, most going into this film will know the gist of the story, or at least how it ends. Indeed, the ending is what makes this story so strong and so gory. The real Aron commented on the authenticity of the film: "the movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama." And what a drama it is!

Boyle opens the film with a triple view split-screen, showing images full of people, crowds throbbing and milling about. Ralston is in some of these, and the frames explain his desire and need to get out of town, to be away by himself. He want solitude. He also wants adventure and a challenge.

On Saturday April 26, 2003, Aron (James Franco) left his apartment and drove through the night to the canyonlands of Utah. His goal: to reach a certain peak faster than the guidebook specified. Setting out on his mountain bike, video taping himself as he goes, he is full of life, ready for anything. But when he leaves his bike to continue through the tight Blue John Canyon on foot, he runs into trouble. Slipping, he falls down a crevice and finds his right arm pinned to the crevice wall by a boulder that fell with him. He is truly caught "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," the title of the book he wrote based on this experience.

Once this true-life premise is established, the film settles down to navigate the 127 hours that Aron spent trapped. With one nalgene bottle of water, little in the way of food, a cheap pocket knife, and his trusty video camera, Aron journals his emotional changes as he grapples with life, death and survival.

The root cause of his predicament is clear: he is alone and no one knows where he is. Early on, he promotes his "I can do it all on my own" attitude. He needs no one. He is young and strong and self-sufficient. Even in the cave-like crevice, he never calls upon God for help. In contrast, Jesus told his disciples, "apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn. 15:5). In Jesus we find strength for life. The apostle Paul reiterated this to the Philippian church: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:13).

Water becomes a major issue for Aron. We may survive for weeks without food, but we cannot last long with water. He packed for a day-trip not a week. Once more we are reminded of our dependence on something outside of ourselves. Jesus said, "To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life" (Rev. 21:6) and further, "whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life" (Rev. 22:17). But this free water requires us to come to Christ, accepting our insufficiency. Aron was not willing to do this.

127 Hours is almost a one-man show, much like Buried. However, whereas Ryan Reynolds' film was dark and ultra-claustrophobic, being trapped in a coffin underground with little illumination, James Franco at least can see the sky, the sun, and the raven that flies above. Also, Boyle films the movie with saturated color, giving the wide-open Utah landscape a gorgeous beauty that underscores Aron's natural wonderlust. Both Franco and Reynolds, though, have to convey their changing understanding of their predicament and gradual desperation mostly through facial expressions, having no one to play off against.

Boyle skillfully uses flashback sequences to fill in Aron's backstory. We do see other characters, such as the two female hikers he meets briefly during his hike, his former girlfriend who he could not connect with, and his family when he was younger. Interspersed with his current situation, this works well to round out the story. Moreover, Boyle adds a hyper-kinetic editing during both present and flashback to convey Aron's 100mph, live-on-the-edge, eat up life philosophy. It gives pace to a film that never really stops to take a breath.

Aron tries to get free by working on the rock. As his chipping and cutting have no effect, his spirit descends. And as his water supply runs out, his rationality comes into question. His self-revelations to the video camera offer a glimpse into his self-awareness. His captivity caused him to reflect on his young life, what he had and what he was to lose. He came face to face with his own mortality. At the zenith of his journaling, he dialogs with himself telling him this was his own fault. "Oops," he declares, realizing perhaps for the first time his need to rely on others, or at least to inform them of his plans.

The whole film moves inexorably to "the scene". Eventually reality sets in and Aron accepts help is not coming. The rock will not be ground down. It is his arm or his life. He must choose. And we know his choice. This scene is not for the squeamish. Shot in one take over 20 minutes, using a single prosthetic arm, Aron's self-amputation is gory and gut-wrenching, but when it is over, liberating . . . in more ways than one! His freedom, indeed his life, cost him his arm.

Aron's loss draws parallels with that of Bethany Hamilton, the teen aged surfer who lost an arm in a shark-attack in 2004. (Her story is chronicled in the upcoming film, Soul Surfer, opening on April 8th, 2011.) Both endured harrowing experiences but emerged with a new perspective on life. However, a contrast is evident. Bethany rested on Jesus both before and after, finding in Him the reason for her loss and the purpose for her continuing existence. Aron, though, remained unbelieving, seeing fate as the reason for his loss. Though he discovered a deep appreciation for life, he sees no divine action in this experience.

When we are faced with tough situations, even tough decisions, we are often give the opportunity to reflect on our own lives. We can avoid such reflection through busyness, but an experience like Aron's grabs us by the scruff of the neck and makes us aware. In doing so, we see both our past and face our present, having to choose how we will move on. Many times we look back on such circumstances and see them as character- or self-defining. Survivors are known to be thankful even for their loss because they carry a deeper understanding of themselves and the preciousness of our life.

Aron symbolizes the hope of life. His courage and determination in the face of adversity are a testament to what we can do if we do not give up hope. If he could do this without looking up to Jesus, imagine what we can do when we allow God to be there for us.                         

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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