127 Hours: Survival Instinct

127 Hours is a heroic, harrowing tale from the director of Slumdog Millionaire

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James Franco stars in 127 Hours, a drama based on the true story of the mountain climber Aron Ralston and directed by Danny Boyle.

An Indie director coming off a popular, Oscar-winning film faces a tantalizing question: What's next? Use that clout to aim for a blockbuster? Run for cover with a sequel or remake? Danny Boyle, whose Slumdog Millionaire won eight Academy Awards in 2009 and earned $378 million worldwide, is not one to have his head turned by fame. The British auteur has followed up the epic Slumdog with 127 Hours — a "little" film about a young man who slips down a hole and into a nightmare.

The young man is Aron Ralston (played by James Franco), whose 2004 memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place detailed his five-day ordeal. In 2003, on a solo sojourn to Utah's Blue John Canyon, Aron fell down a crevasse; his right arm got pinned between a boulder and a canyon wall. Suspended there, unable to sit or maneuver, with little water or food and no hope of rescue, Aron used his hiking and engineering skills to stay alive for a few days. Then he had to decide whether to die or fight — to be his own coroner or his own surgeon.

In cinematic terms, the task facing Boyle and his team was almost as daunting. Some movies are essentially one-man shows (Spencer Tracy in The Old Man and the Sea, James Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis); other films, like the recent Israeli war drama Lebanon, throw a small group of men into a single cramped space. But Aron is imprisoned in the worst form of solitary confinement: nowhere to move, no one to talk to — except himself, on a phone cam. How does a director create visual variety while keeping moviegoers focused on the awful job at hand?

Boyle addresses the matter exactly as you'd expect, in his patented antic-frantic style: split screens, speedy-cam tours of the terrain, Koyaanisqatsi-like sky vistas. The movie slips into flashbacks, surmises and hallucinations as A.R. Rahman's score and rock-song interludes work hard to distract the viewer with music.

But 127 Hours finds most of its drama in Franco's gaunt, expressive face. His Aron shows desperation but no panic. He slices his challenge into a series of problems to be solved: finding water to sustain him, devising a pulley system to hold him, summoning the guts to set himself free. This is a survival manual turned into an existential prison-break movie; it cuts deep and, at its ecstatic climax, soars high.

This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2010 issue of TIME.