December 9, 2010 -- I wasn't looking forward to seeing this movie. I did not want to see a person cut his own arm off in order to survive. If I'd known that in the same movie he also drinks his own urine to survive, I might have put this off a little longer. We don't really have to actually see everything, do we? At least he didn't eat his arm. I have to admit though, for a movie that actually shows in bloody detail a guy cutting his own arm off with a dull knife and drinking his own urine, it's pretty good. I didn't gag, faint or vomit, as some people have, but I did cringe. I watched the whole, bloody thing, and am here to tell the tale. Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.
Based on a true story, James Franco of “Pineapple Express” plays the movie's main character, practically the only character, Aron Ralston, who makes a climbing trip to Canyonlands National Park and neglects to tell anyone where he is going -- “Oops” -- he says later, thinking back on that mistake. He rides a mountain bike into a trailhead (There is a disclaimer at the end of the movie about a federal rule against mountain biking in certain areas of the park and how Ralston, Franco, Fox Searchlight, etc. don't condone mountain biking in those areas, etc. It makes one wonder if Ralston rode where he was not supposed to ride.) in the Horseshoe Canyon area of the park. Those of you familiar with this park know that the prehistoric rock art in Horseshoe Canyon is spectacular, and some of it is shown in the film. Some of the images look like space aliens. Franco, however, was headed not there, but to nearby Bluejohn Canyon, a “technical slot canyon” with a big drop off at the end, which he intends to descend.
Along the way, he runs across two pretty girls who are lost, Kristi (played by Kate Mara of “Iron Man 2”) and Megan (played by Amber Tamblyn of the “Joan of Arcadia” TV series). He guides them to their destination, some place called “The Dome,” where they dive from the top of a slot canyon into a pool of water. Then Aron is on his way again, and again doesn't mention where he is going. Descending into Bluejohn Canyon, he gets his arm caught between a heavy boulder and the canyon wall, and he cannot get loose. He tries everything to get loose, even hooking up a crude pulley system to try to lift the rock, and trying to chip away at the rock with a cheap multi-tool (he couldn't find his Swiss Army knife when he left). It gets worse. This cheap multi-tool (also known as a “leatherman”) has a very dull knife blade.
This is where the film gets tricky, and writer-director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and the cinematographers get very creative. How do you make the film interesting when you have a guy stuck in one place for a long time in a very tight place where only a few camera angles are possible? The film uses a whole bag of tricks from inventive camera angles (like a shot from inside a water bottle while Aron is drinking from it) to flashbacks, dream sequences, fantasy sequences, delusions, hallucinations and even premonitions. There is a deluge, contrail patterns in the sky, visiting ants and birds, a disembodied visit to a party, all sorts of things to break up the monotony of a guy stuck in a narrow canyon for five days.
While he is stuck, Aron thinks back on his life and has regrets about things he didn't say and do. He thinks if he had just answered the phone on the day he left for Canyonlands, and talked to his mother, he would not be in the fix he is now. He records farewell messages for his family on a video camera. A premonition comes to him with all his family and friends gathered to see him that finally gives him the strength and courage to do what he has to do to free himself. Once he is free from his trap, the rest of the movie rushes to its conclusion quickly. The celebrity of his unusual escape is glossed over in seconds and there are a few written notes and images at the end of the film about Aron's life since his narrow escape. It seems he is doing quite well. James Franco should be a lock for an Academy Award acting nomination for this. He'd have a better chance of winning if he were British so he could get all those Anglophile votes. He'll be up against another actor, a Brit, Colin Firth, playing another guy with a handicap, stuttering, in “The King's Speech.” This film rates a B.
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