Like many Danny Boyle movies, including 28 Days Later, Millions and Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours is an against-all-odds survival saga. Its ostensible subject is Aron Ralston, the outdoorsman trapped in a Utah canyon by a falling boulder that pinned his right hand and forearm to the red rock.
But the true subjects of Boyle's film starring James Franco as Aron are many. They include the pleasures of solitude, the afflictions of the solitary, the Sisyphean challenge of a hump-busting ordeal, and that transcendent moment of deliverance. It's a coming-of-age story - blunt, mythic, gut-wrenching.
It takes a particular talent to build an action movie around a static figure literally stuck between rock and hard place. Boyle has the gift. He harnesses A.R. Rahman's music and Glenn Freemantle's sound design to Franco's electricity to at least 127 camera angles (superbly edited by Jon Harris) to create a propulsive sense of movement.
It is not for the squeamish. It takes a greater degree of intestinal fortitude than I possess. In the film's penultimate scene, as Ralston amputates his own forearm, I watched through fingers fanned in front of eyes.
But though Aron ever tests himself, Boyle does not test the audience. He does his darnedest to make the movie experience into an experience experience. And he succeeds. Everything about the bravura filmmaking and performance is designed to put us into Aron's hiking boots, head and body and make us feel his exhilaration as well as his delirium of fear and hope.
In the film's opening scenes, Aron is (literally) a freewheeling thrill-seeker, cycling recklessly through Canyonlands National Park, unshakably fearless and self-reliant. He is a creature of movement, conqueror of ancient rock kingdoms, privy to the secrets of this mystical corner of Utah.
When he meets two pretty hikers, he shows them how to shimmy between the voluptuous lips of a crevasse and drop into a canyon pool. The girls are interested. But Aron's drawn to nature; human nature, not so much. The girls go on their way and leave Aron alone, in his happy place.
By this time Franco has so powerfully conveyed Aron's soaring energy that when the rock pins him in the canyon it's like seeing Niagara evaporate.
When the film forcefully pulls back from glorious external Utah vistas to the even rockier landscape of Aron's inner life, it is no less breathtaking.
The loner has told no one where he's gone, neglected to answer his mom's many telephone calls, and failed to pack his rucksack for an emergency. But he has resources more sustaining than a PowerBar, more infinite than Canyonlands. Aron's hunger for human connection and his imagination pull him - and us - through. Not just literally does 127 Hours get out of the canyon and take us to a higher place.