Opening Weekend: Man vs. object in ’127 Hours’ and ‘Unstoppable’

Two monster movies in which the monster is a large, heavy object
James Franco in '127 Hours'

What will it be? Hard-core or soft? That’s the choice if you’re planning a thrill ride at the multiplex midway this weekend—between Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours and Tony Scott’s Unstoppable. Two monster movies in which the monster is a large, heavy object. The better of the two by far is the hard-core option, 127 Hours, based on the true story of climber Aron Ralston, who spent five days pinned by a boulder in a Utah canyon before finally performing surgery on his arm with a blunt penknife. Personally, I couldn’t watch the surgery part, but among those who did there are reports of people fainting.  Despite my queasiness—I couldn’t even watch my son getting his pinkie finger stitched up at emerg this week—I don’t disapprove of the graphic gore in 127 Hours. It has the necessary cathartic effect, and cutting off the damn arm is, after all, what we spend the rest of the movie waiting for.

What’s more irritating, however, is Boyle’s manic direction. Because our hero is going to spend the better part of an action movie alone and virtually immobile, the director has gone out of his way to compensate, determined that there will never be a dull moment. He jams as much gonzo action as possible into the scenes leading up to the accident, with split screens, speeded-up footage, and relentless rock music, establishing that Ralston is one crazy cowboy who’s about to get a bone-crushing lesson in hubris—Sisyphus stuck between his rock and a hard place.

Once Ralston is jammed in that canyon, Boyle performs all manner of camera tricks to keep his solitary confinement lively, from a looming water-bottle cam to showbiz soliloquies that Ralston delivers as a kind of reality-show performance art for his video camera. It’s all wildly entertaining. Gotta admit I got sucked in. I found myself along for the white-knuckled ride to the point that the climber’s final liberation was truly exhilarating—I felt I’d been shot out the end of some high-pressure water slide, and walked out of the movie  physically and emotionally exhausted. But all the razzmatazz filmmaking gets in the way of the story, making you wonder what really happened. Also, Franco is such a strong and committed actor that I wish Boyle had allowed his performance more room to breathe, and taken the more dangerous option of exploring the empty, existential silence of a man trapped with his own fear.

Denzel Washington in 'Unstoppable'

For more on 127 Hours, go to my article in the magazine— Forget Saw 3-D. This is authentic horror, featuring interviews with Danny Boyle and Aron Ralston. As for Unstoppable, unless you have a deep and abiding affection for freight trains (not that there’s anything wrong with that), you can afford to skip it. To read my review of Unstoppable, go to: Yet another runaway Denzel vehicle.