A man is trapped. He can’t go anywhere, and he’s alone. During long days and nights, he reflects on his family and his life as he tries to extricate himself from the situation. Though long stretches of the movie are wordless, the impact on the audience is real and moving. Finally, at the end, he manages to get back to life, although the worse for wear.
The movie? 2000’s Cast Away, starring Tom Hanks in an Oscar-nominated performance. Hanks, an initially comedic actor who had, by then, well established himself as a versatile craftsman, essentially carried the movie. Along with a volleyball named Wilson.
Of course, there are many parallels to the reasonably current 127 Hours, this time with James Franco in the OMG-what-do-I-do-now role. Again, Franco is asked to carry the movie, and, like Hanks before him, generally delivers. (Yes, I realize it’s been out quite a while; it took a bit to get around to seeing it.)
But the different experiences of the two movies are based more on their differences. In Cast Away, Hanks is thrust into the situation based on no fault of his own, when his plane crashes into the ocean. In 127 Hours, Aron Ralston gets into trouble because he was reckless and foolish, choosing to travel into the wilds without letting anyone know where he was going or when he was coming back. That makes it harder to gin up sympathy for his plight.
Also, while the middle portion of Cast Away is filled with Hanks’ character striving to make small accomplishments to survive and then succeeding, Franco as Ralston strives to make one major accomplishment and fails. Well, until he succeeds at the very end in a somewhat gory result. I didn’t feel the same kind of vicarious joy that I did when Hanks made fire when Franco drank his own urine. It’s not learning a new skill to survive, it’s holding your nose and gulping.
None of this is to say that 127 Hours is a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s actually pretty good. The cinematography is beautiful, with panoramic shots of Canyonlands and the Moab, Utah area. The pacing doesn’t ever really stall, and at just over 90 minutes, there’s really no time for surreptitiously checking your watch. And as I said, Franco fills the screen well, portraying a (belated) embarrassment and realization of impending death as Ralston’s time marches on.
But it didn’t take me on as visceral a journey. Which makes it a good movie, but not a great one. Despite a strong performance by James Franco.