Survival films usually come in one of two varieties. Either they’re emotionally charged nightmares with bickering survivors who die one by one or lonely reflective works with man pitted against nature in a depressing one way picture. Very rarely are they done well as in “Alive.” Danny Boyle brings energy and excitement to the trekking in “127 Hours” with great camerawork (the non-camcorder one) and lighting. The great outdoors have never looked better. James Franco brings his cheerful and pleasant self to the role of Aron for a harmless journey to Blue John Canyon which is some place in his guide book in the middle of an American Southwest Nowhere. He meets two cute hiker girls who has lost their way and introduces them to a short cut to get to where they’re going but in style. This features a drop into an underground pool with selfies and a cheerful sendoff with a promise for partying the next evening.
After this engaging beginning, the next events are a bit shocking (for those who haven’t seen the trailer, that is). He falls into a crevasse and loosens a boulder which smashes his right hand against a wall. After a few futile attempts to dislodge it, he screams the names of his newfound friends to no avail. A great shot pans up and above to see how very alone and lost he is. Calmly, he sets all of his items on the boulder and takes stock of his situation. He starts chipping away at the boulder with a pocket knife and drops it below his reach. An able engineer, he concocts a solution with pieces of stick and a shoe. This is usually the point where things would get depressing but it doesn’t somehow. He remembers times with his family, imagines the fun the hiker girls must be having, imagines all matters of drinks. The water bottle glugs threateningly announcing its ever lowering level with silent finality. His engineering skills come into play again as he tosses some climbing rope up (all one- handed of course) many times to manufacture a makeshift pulley. More memories of family and friends pour forth and we realize that he hasn’t even told anyone where he has gone. He begins narrating into the camcorder he has brought along to document his planned fun journey. Despite his desperate situation, he puts warmth and a few jokes into his video journals. His rueful smiles would have you believe he only got stuck with a flat without a spare on the side of the road. His eyes, parched lips, and paling skin, tell a different story.
The reminiscences get fantastical and one remembers Tom Hanks and his conversations with his Wilson volleyball in “Castaway” as our hero plays host and guest on his own private talk show and resorts to unseemly forms of survival to keep together. Escape fantasies plague his waking moments as do regrets of familial and romantic relationships. The film becomes a triply split screen with fantastical images o family waiting for him on a sunlight sofa.
This could have been a different movie. It might have been downcast, turgid, whiny, and existential. Instead, it is harrowing, life-affirming and triumphant in a completely earned fashion. Danny Boyle’s style of quick, rapid fire scenes with appropriate music and sound effect to show the physical pain of the determined protagonist. Much of the later scenes are quite hard to look at but James Franco is more than suited to the task in a fully physical performance. Colin Farrell kept us rapt with attention while trapped in a phone booth (aided in large part by the voice of Kiefer Sutherland) and here Franco keeps us glued to the screen for the whole film. Not many actors possess the charisma necessary to make this possible and I’m happy to say, James Franco certainly does. Danny Boyle has made a unique film. The music plays a great part appropriately reflective, adventurous, and triumphant where necessary accentuating the emotional payoff at the film’s end.