A hiker trapped alone in the wilderness must undergo a terrible act of self-mutilation in this true tale of perseverance and survival. The Fox Searchlight release was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
by CBSNews.com producer David Morgan
The news of Aron Ralston's incredible feat of survival made world headlines in 2003, when the young man emerged from the Utah Canyonlands after five days trapped in Blue John Canyon. Unable to extricate his right arm from under a boulder that had pinned him, Ralston cut off his arm as the only way to escape his dire predicament.
Ralston's book of his experience, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," was certainly the most challenging source material for any of this year's Best Picture nominees.
In their screenplay adaptation, director Danny Boyle (pictured), an Oscar winner for "Slumdog Millionaire, and Simon Beaufoy (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Slumdog" and a nominee for "The Full Monty") intersperse the 127 hours during which Ralston was pinned down with flashbacks to his childhood and girlfriend, out-of-body experiences, premonitions of the future, and reliving the mistakes he'd made as he set off on his trip - such as, not telling anyone where he was going.
Rule 1: Always leave a note.
The film opens with Ralston (James Franco) packing up his equipment and provisions before heading out on a wilderness expedition. Every drop and crumb we will soon appreciate to be a very rare and valuable resource.
By chance he fails to bring his Swiss army knife.
Rule 2: Never forget your Swiss army knife.
Ralston blazingly bikes the 17.3 miles to his juncture, then hikes off to Blue John Canyon. He cherishes the scenery, the heat, the aloneness of the wilderness.
You would think he could never feel more alive.
During his hike he encounters a pair of lost young women, Megan and Kristi (Amber Tamblyn and Kate Mara). A volunteer guide, Ralston knows his way around, and directs them to Long Wall Canyon and its petroglyphs.
He then entices them to go climbing to a "secret place," only to swiftly disappear . . . into an emerald pool far below.
After their frolic, Ralston eagerly resumes his own trek to Blue John Canyon, seemingly preferring the solitude to their company. Megan wonders if he will show up at the party they invited him to; Kristi replies, "Know what? I don't think we figured in his day at all."
Ralston dutifully tests the sturdiness of his footings as he descends into a slot canyon.
But one rock gives way. He slips and falls, and the rock - a boulder the size of a small desk - traps his right hand and wrist against the wall.
Struggling to move the rock and dislodge his arm, Ralston discovers that no amount of pushing or straining will budge it. Shock turns to anger, then fear. "This is . . . this is . . . ridiculous!"
Screaming doesn't help. He is miles from anywhere, from anyone. Even if he had a cell phone, there would be no reception.
He then stops and takes stock of his situation. ("Relax. Come on, think.") Trying to calm himself, he lays out his equipment. Rope and carabiners. Camcorder. Water bottle and Camelbak. Two bean burritos. Money and credit cards. A small multi-tool with knife.
With great purpose he sets out to chip chip chip away at the rock, to dislodge it or at least free up his hand. But it is very, very slow going, and the knife's blade wears down more quickly than the boulder.
"Aron, you're gonna have to cut your arm off," he says to himself, laughing - not at the humor but at the seriousness of his situation.
During his long ordeal, when a pulley system fails to raise the stone, Ralston reflects on each action he takes, such as preserving or consuming water, or storing his urine for possible future need.
With his camcorder he records messages for his parents in which he expresses his frustration and sorrow. But it is not pitiable, considering the effort and resourcefulness with which he tries every possible way to escape his trap.
Within this narrow framework Franco offers a character who is both present and remote, intelligent and capable of dumb mistakes, optimistic and morose. Of course everyone knows the outcome of the story, so the drama is not in whether Ralston frees himself but how he manages to survive such a terrible situation - and how he comes to the conclusion that cutting off his arm is mandatory if he is to live. We in the audience who would ask ourselves, If it were me could I do that?, are made to understand how we might - and the terrible difficulty (in its gruesome detail) of actually accomplishing the self-amputation.
James Franco won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor for "Milk," and won a Golden Globe for his TV portrayal of "James Dean." Following his starring role in the TV show "Freaks and Geeks," Franco appeared in such films as "Spider-Man" and its sequels, "The Company," "City by the Sea," "Fool's Gold," "Flyboys," "The Dead Girl," "Annapolis," "In the Valley of Elah," "Pineapple Express," "Howl" (as Allen Ginsburg), "Eat Pray Love," and "The Green Hornet." And when he isn't portraying the artist "Franco" on "General Hospital," he's hosting the Academy Awards - where he may well be presented with the Best Actor Oscar this year for "127 Hours."
Prior to "Slumdog Millionaire," Danny Boyle had an international hit with "Trainspotting," about a heroin addict trying to go cold turkey. His other films include "Shallow Grave," "A Life Less Ordinary," "The Beach," the zombie flick "28 Days Later," "Sunshine" and "Millions."
Filming on location where Ralston was trapped gave authenticity, though it was logistically difficult - with cast and crew flying in by helicopter from a base camp every day. Ralston himself returned to the location on the 7th anniversary of his 6-day ordeal. A portion of the canyon was also recreated on a soundstage in precise detail.
Boyle hired two cinematographers, Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, to handle the photography, which was done using both 35mm film and digital cameras (particularly useful in low-light canyons and caves).