You have to wonder why so many recent films have featured people trapped in a confined or isolated place: Frozen, Devil, Buried, and now Danny Boyle's jazzy and harrowing account of the true story of Aron Ralston, a cocky rock climber who got his arm pinned by a boulder in a desolate Utah canyon and had to resort to dire measures to survive. Do these films reflect a general sense of dismay — the frustration, dread, and despair elicited more overtly by such movies as Inside Job or Fair Game?
For Ralston, of course, the experience was not metaphorical. Played by the chameleonic James Franco, he wakes up before dawn at the beginning of the film, just full of himself and raring to go spend a weekend in the wild. You can tell he's a loner and proud of it, because Boyle shows the preparations for his excursion in a split screen contrasted with random images of crowded places, like soccer matches, the running of the bulls at Pamplona, and perhaps an outtake or two from Boyle's own Slumdog Millionaire. But Ralston's tragic flaws are suggested in this opening montage celebrating solitude and self-reliance. Like leaving behind his Swiss Army knife. And not taking a call from his mother. No good can come of that.
Nonetheless, his energy propels the story along — he's one of those physically indomitable athletic types whose skills are just short of being insufferable. He charms a pair of lost female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) with his ability to scamper down cliffsides like a young mountain goat. Then he delights them with an initiation into a secret cavern pool. Dazzled, they invite him to a party. It's clear that they're his for the asking. But no, on to the vast emptiness, and a rendezvous with what will prove to be the rock of his destiny.
Boyle's mission is twofold. One, to instill meaning in what at first glance seems merely a grotesque and absurd mishap. The second is to keep things lively when most of the film consists of a motionless guy in a crevice moaning and struggling and drinking his own urine for the five-plus days of the title.
The latter problem Boyle solves through the magic of hallucinations and flashbacks — both of which, for some reason, feature the repeated image of a sofa. That eccentricity aside, Boyle proves skilled at blurring the real and the imaginary. The camerawork, the editing, and the soundtrack — not to mention the entries the narcissistic-to-the-end Ralston obsessively records in his video account of the ordeal — reproduce with panache and sometimes poetry the flailing consciousness of a person in extremis.
As for making sense of it all, here Boyle is more tentative. In his increasingly desperate musings, Ralston concludes that maybe he does need other people. But this seems a lot of trouble to endure to be reminded to keep in touch with your mother. At another point, Ralston gets philosophical, speculating like Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus about embracing his fate, even when his fate is in the form of a big dumb stone. Or maybe the film is simply a warning against hubris, joining Grizzly Man and Into the Wild in suggesting that we should just stay home. If you take on nature, it will kill you. Not that your chances of surviving in the civilized world these days look all that good.