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Toronto 2010: Danny Boyle's '127 Hours' looks to come in from the cold

September 12, 2010 |  7:30 am

Of the many subgenres in which Hollywood and the indie film world dabble, few have gone off a cliff, as it were, more than the outdoor survival movie.

The film industry has long had a knack for moving audiences with stories of outdoor enthusiasts facing a daunting natural enemy, from Bunuel's "Robinson Crusoe" to Curtis Hanson's "The River Wild." Just a decade ago, "Cast Away," "Vertical Limit" and "The Perfect Storm" were global blockbusters (if not exactly great films).

But many of the outdoor survival movies of late -- "Into the Wild" and "The Road" come to mind -- have been box-office disappointments. It's not entirely the movies' fault. As human enemies began to seem more fearsome in the aughts, nature seemed less villainous. (Also not helping was the fact that as the decade wore on the outdoor-adventure craze that took hold in the 1990s began to cool down.)

Which may be why there's no better director than Danny Boyle to kick-start a comeback for the subgenre. Boyle is one of the most kinetic directors working today; if there's a filmmaker who can make the battle against the outdoors seem less flat or cliched and get people interested in a genre they've long abandoned, it's him.

Bringing new energy to the outdoor-survival film is pretty much what the "Slumdog Millionaire" auteur attempts in "127 Hours." The movie is based on the true story of canyoneering enthusiast and self-styled outdoorsman Aron Ralston (James Franco), who after nearly a week fighting the elements while pinned under a rock in a remote part of Utah, amputates his own arm to set himself free and survive.

After a teary screening in Telluride last weekend, the film had its official unveiling for hundreds of members of the media and movie industry in Toronto on Saturday. An hour-long delay and a move to a new theater set the crowd on edge, and Boyle himself turned out to crack a few jokes and appease the audience. But when the lights finally went down, all was forgotten.

Boyle animates many scenes in "127 Hours" with his trademark flash (think split screens, shots from impossible angles and a particularly ingenious device in which Ralston interviews himself using a handheld video camera) without sacrificing the story's humanity.

Boyle had the unusual challenge of showing the claustrophobia of Ralston's condition without making the movie seem claustrophobic. But a clever use of flashback and hallucination -- as well as a noticeable pleasure in the details -- skillfully takes care of the restlessness that filmgoers might feel. And so it was that a potentially jaded group walked out into the late afternoon sun full of rapture, talking up Franco's performance as a surefire best actor nomination and wondering whether Boyle could somehow repeat the "Slumdog" magic.

There will be obstacles, not least that, given the harshness of Ralston's situation, parts of the film are difficult to watch. (A Twitter follower of ours noted that "I don't care how great '127 hours' reviews are, I know I can't stomach a guy cutting his own arm off. Won't see it.")

Fair enough. But Boyle does some things that may change people's minds. For one, he doesn't stuff his movie with big action sequences. Part of the reason even smaller survival movies began to wear us down may be because big studios have hammered us with so much outdoors-themed danger -- let's not forget "The Day After Tomorrow," "Twister" or "Armageddon" -- that nature stopped seeming very threatening. By dialing it all back and focusing on one person, "127 Hours" ratchets up the fear. The film is not as much of a thriller as Rodrigo Cortes' man-in-a-coffin "Buried," a film to which "127 Hours" will no doubt be compared to this fall. But by being so human, it's a lot more scary.

In doing all of this, Boyle might have just saved the outdoor-survival movie. Or at least helped it live to see another day.

-- Steven Zeitchik


Photo: James Franco in "127 Hours." Credit: Fox Searchlight